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October 7, 2009

Mental health, no one wants to discuss

Reuel S. Amdur

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Welcome home, Jeffrey Arenburg. U.S. federal court judge Richard Aracara ordered his deportation back to Canada after he served time in an American prison for punching a U.S. customs officer in the mouth at the Buffalo border post in November, 2007.

At his trial, he made bizarre remarks about his thoughts being broadcast.

Arenburg came to public attention in 1995 when he shot and killed sportscaster Brian Smith in Ottawa. 

He has a history of believing that radio stations are broadcasting into his head and sending his thoughts out to the world, as well as telling people he knows how they should treat him.  That’s why he killed Smith. 

It is also why in 1992 he assaulted the manager of a radio station in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. 

The year before he also threatened staff at an Ottawa station. 

Back in 1998 he went to Parliament Hill to seek out Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark to complain about thoughts being broadcast into his head.

At the trial for the killing, he was found not guilty by reason of mental illness and sent to the Penetanguishene Mental Health Centre, a facility for dangerous offenders who are mentally ill.  In his case, his condition is paranoid schizophrenia. 

In 2003, he was allowed to live with his brother in Barrie.  He was put on a community treatment order, requiring him to accept treatment, in his case with anti-psychotic medication. 

Then, in 2006, the mental health review board removed the treatment order, feeling that he was no longer a significant threat to the community and that his schizophrenia was in remission.

As a result of the killing, the Ontario legislature passed “Brian’s Law,” changing the Mental Health Act to make it easier to hospitalize people who may be dangerous and providing for community treatment orders; either take the medicine or go back to the hospital and have it given involuntarily. 

Previously the law required that the danger presented by the person be “imminent,” but that word was removed due to the efforts of Liberal MPP Richard Patten, who consulted with former NDP leader Michael Cassidy, the father of a schizophrenic man. 

Another change in the legislation means that the police no longer need to view the grounds for taking a person to hospital for assessment.  They can act on the accounts of other people who have seen the evidence. 

Removing the word “imminent” may have made all the difference in the world in this case if it had been done prior to the killing. 

An Ottawa agency staff person encountered Arenburg in a men’s shelter and observed his dysfunctional behaviour.  He arranged for his delivery to the Royal Ottawa Hospital, but the hospital could not hold him under the law as it then existed.  If his danger was not “imminent,” the community soon found out that it was in any case significant. 

The question of how to treat people suffering from mental illness who refuse treatment has been a difficult one to resolve. 

Do we give them the right to refuse treatment, and if so are we doing them a favour? 

A woman I know had a schizophrenic son who refused treatment and was living in the gutter.  Finally, he got into treatment at what was then the Queen Street Mental Health Centre. 

“Mother,” he told her, “I don’t ever want to live that way again.”  Then, he was assigned a different psychiatrist who decided that he was not schizophrenic but depressed instead. His medication was changed and soon he was back in the gutter. 

In this case, society chose to accept his wishes when he was delusional but to reject what he wanted for himself when he was “normal,” in remission.  This emphasis on giving the mentally ill choice has resulted in the transferring of responsibility for more and more of them from the medical system to the correctional system, from hospitals to prisons.  That change is illustrated in the current case. 

When Arenburg was released to his brother, Alana Kainz, Smith’s widow, expressed serious misgivings, feeling that he would always remain a danger. 

She was right and the experts were wrong.  Their release of Arenburg from the constraints of the mental health system in 2006 was a serious error. 

On his return to Canada, he is “free,” with no prior control on his behaviour.  On his return, he is not constrained to take his anti-psychotic medication.  He has a history of going off his medicines. 

We await his next encounter with the legal system before he can again receive involuntary treatment. 

Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer based across the river from Ottawa.

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