The Case of Allan Schoenborn

Having been immersed in other writing pursuits, I haven’t been inclined to blog as of late. But the case of Allan Schoenborn coming back into the media spotlight has me riled up enough to submit a cent or two.

Many might remember Shoenborn as the man in British Columbia, Canada who was found not criminally responsible for the murders of his three young children several years ago. Meaning, that he would serve out his time in a forensic psychiatric hospital, instead of a jail. Also meaning that there isn’t any specific length of time that he must be removed from society. It is up to a board of mental health professionals to decide when he is fit to return to society and under what restrictions.

Of course, this all caused a great deal of public debate, much reminiscent of what was heard when Vince Li was found not criminally responsible for the decapitation death of Tim McLean aboard a Greyhound bus. And making the verdict that much more difficult for some to swallow was the bizarre nature of Schoenborn’s offence and subsequent actions. After the murders, that he admitted to in great detail, he ran into the woods. It would take nine days for police to track him down, with the help of a hunter who stumbled upon him in the woods.

Mr. Shoerborn’s reason for killing his children was simple and stated in multiple undercover interviews in jail and with his estranged wife: he thought they were being sexually abused and saw no other choice. He said that he could smell semen in their hair which was proof that they were being abused. He saw no other way to end their suffering than to kill them.

Of course, this isn’t logical reasoning but it definitely displays that he was not of sound mind at the time of the offense and was obviously displaying the symptoms of severe mental illness, likely paranoid schizophrenia compounded by depression.

My entire reason for bringing this painful issue to light once again is that there has been a public and political out-cry since it was deemed that he would get escorted passes to the community. Numerous petitions have been filed and the word spread like wildfire, causing the review board to have to reconvene in a few weeks to review their decision.

This sort of ‘lock him up and throw away the key’ mentality proves that our understanding and appreciation of mental illness still has a painfully long way to go.

Society has basically said that whether he was mentally ill or not, he has to pay. And should pay by spending the rest of his life locked up. If the review board deemed him able to go on escorted walks, that means that he is likely progressing with treatment. He likely no longer believes that his children were being molested, and likely can no longer justify that belief for his dreadful actions. Therefore, he has to face each and every day with the thought that he brutally murdered his three beautiful children.

That sounds like punishment enough.

But apparently, it isn’t. This gentleman just wants to go to the coffee shop and take a walk around town. And he wouldn’t have been alone. He would have had escorts from the hospital. But due to our fears of everything we don’t understand, he won’t be going off of property for quite some time.

The bottom line is that you can’t punish someone for having a mental illness. People who commit gruesome acts whilst under the thrusts of mental illness don’t have the capacity to understand them in the same way that you or I would. When your mind is constantly distorting your perceptions, your belief in what is real is greatly affected, and thus impairs your decision-making abilities.

Allen Shoenborn wouldn’t have killed his children had he been of sound mind. And now that he is beginning to gain some sense of normalcy in his otherwise chaotic and deluded world, we shouldn’t take this tiny progress away from him.

He’s mourning the death of his three young children.

And there is no greater punishment than that.

The Sad Case of Vince Li

The mental health system in Canada has been brought to the forefront of all of our minds with the shocking case of Vince Li, the Chinese immigrant who decapitated a Greyhound passenger and was recently found Not Criminally Responsible for his actions.

The family of the victim have publicly denounced the court system and have even said that Li is ‘getting away with murder.’ They were also quoted as saying that ‘he will be able to get a job in a day care and pursue life as he pleases.’

Frankly, it sickens me that these outrageous quotes and misinformed ideas have been allowed to spread through the media and the public opinion. It is understandable that the family of victim Tim McLean are completely shocked and abhorred by this unfortunate incident, but their distorted views are only bringing the plight of the mentally ill back another step.

Schizophrenia is one of the least understood of all of the major psychotic disorders. However, one thing is known for sure: people with schizophrenia are not any more likely than the general public to be violent. And in the rare cases that they do become violent, the violence is usually self-inflicted or geared towards close friends and family members. These types of situations are usually preceded by either a failure to take medication, experimentation with drugs and alcohol or extremely stressful life events, leading to a psychotic break with reality.

I have been following this case closely from the beginning and I admittedly have a more avid interest than most. As a student in the Mental Health and Addictions program, I will be doing my placement at the Forensic Unity of the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. Although Mr. Li will be hospitalized in Manitoba, I am eager to be able to meet other patients with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders who have come into contact with the law and hopefully piece together a bit of the puzzle.

Mr. Li most likely believed that he would be heralded as a hero when he jumped through the window of the Greyhound bus covered in blood from head to toe. Instead he was treated like ‘some sort of murderer,’ he later told a psychiatrist. In his mind, he had killed McLean on a direct order from God, because McLean was a demon. In his mind, he was doing the right thing. It was only weeks later upon being stabilized on anti-psychotic medications that Li came to understand the extent of his actions.

For some reason in mental illness, we tend to still somewhat hold the person responsible for their actions, where we never hold the same stance for physical illness. For example, the mother of the victim would probably not be as enraged if her son was killed by a driver who had an epileptic seizure behind the wheel. They are both out of the control of the patient, but for some reason we as a society still think the mentally ill should have to be punished for their actions.

Exploring Stigma

*This was written for a teen-based publication, Evoke Magazine, but can be applied to all ages*

It’s an ugly little word that rears its ugly head in almost every aspect of human life.  But in order to combat stigma, we must first appreciate what it is, its negative power and the sneaky ways that we can all fall victim to it.

Stigma has the ability to create worry and self-doubt in anyone who bears its heavy brunt.  It has the ability to cause depressive thoughts, suicidal ideations and a negative self-image in impressionable young people.  It has the ability to change the way someone looks at the world.  It has the ability to take the drive and courage from a promising young mind with only a few words that can echo for a lifetime.

Stigma isn’t something that can be narrowed down to one specific set of behaviours.  It involves anything from labelling another as stupid, retarded, fat, nerdy, scrawny, crazy or any other demeaning term.  Essentially, it is deciding that someone else is inferior to you because you say so.

It isn’t until some people reach adulthood that they begin to realize the true impression that stigma left on their childhood experience.  Many young adults can speak at length of the pains of being labelled during elementary and high school.  It causes permanent damage and is certainly not something that is limited to the school experience.

The negative forces of stigma work in the real world as well.  They exist in creating political and racial divides, the stereotyping or profiling of minority groups and individuals and cause endless amounts of distress in our political and social world.  Unfortunately, much of that is out of our immediate hands.

However, it is the stigmas of everyday life that we can do something about.  When you break it down, stigma is caused by developing an uneducated assumption about a person or a group of people.  Therefore, stigma can be erased, or at least lessened, by becoming better educated about those around you.  Especially those who aren’t exactly like you.

It’s about not passing quick judgment on someone whose behaviour you might not understand.  It’s about not whispering to your friends in the hall that the desperately thin girl in front of you should just eat a hamburger.  It’s about not labelling a group of people ‘losers’ just because they don’t enjoy the same activities as you.  The bottom line is that it is about caring for your fellow humans and doing your part to ease the strain that we all feel as we struggle to find our place in the world.

Instead of labelling someone that is different than you, take the mature route and get to know them instead.  Get to appreciate your differences, which will in turn allow you to uncover your similarities.

Engage yourself and rise above stigma.  For the benefit of the future.