A door opens for the mentally ill
TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Mon Apr 11 2011. By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
History was made in a quiet committee room at Queen’s Park last week.
For the first time, an individual living openly with mental illness was appointed to the Consent and Capacity Board, the powerful tribunal that determines whether Ontarians receiving psychiatric treatment are capable of living outside an institution without endangering themselves or others. It handles about 4,500 cases a year.
The board has 131 members: 45 lawyers, 44 psychiatrists and 42 members of the public (retired public figures, community leaders, caregivers and relatives of psychiatric patients).
What it didn’t have until last week was anyone who had been institutionalized for mental illness, labelled, stereotyped and limited by the opinions of doctors and the fears of society.
Pat Capponi has survived all that — plus poverty, isolation and the misperception that psychiatric patients never recover.
Last Tuesday, she was unanimously approved by the Public Appointments Committee as the newest member of the Consent and Capacity Board.
The all-party committee rarely gives its unanimous endorsement to any nominee for the province’s 258 agencies, boards and commissions. It has never said yes to a candidate with credentials like Capponi’s.
The hearing was surprisingly low-key. Capponi made a brief opening statement, describing her background, qualifications and why she wanted to serve on the board.
She took MPPs back to the day, 30 years ago, when she convinced the late Larry Grossman, who was minister of health, to visit the boarding home she shared with 70 other discharged psychiatric patients. She wanted him to see how they lived and hear their stories.
That was her first breakthrough. Since then, she has sat at many tables: the board of the old Clarke Institute and the new Centre for Addictions and Mental Health, former mayor Mel Lastman’s task force on discharged psychiatric patients and the Toronto Police Board’s subcommittee on mental health. She has taught what she’s learned to other people with mental disorders.
“There is much more to us than the often-obscuring labels we carry,” she said. “We have proven over and over again that given the opportunity, we respond with pride, ability and courage.”
Then she faced questions from the politicians. Only one, from former Conservative health minister Jim Wilson, challenged her fitness for the job. Citing the case of a psychiatric patient released from Penetanguishene Mental Health Centre who went on a crime spree that ended in murder, he asked Capponi if she was tough enough to say no.
“If you do the crime, you do the time,” she said firmly. “I am sterner than most (mental health advocates).”
She added that the board’s mandate doesn’t leave a lot of room for discretion. Members must balance the rights of involuntarily detained psychiatric patients against society’s right to safety. They must provide reasons for their decisions.
The hearing was over in 20 minutes. Wilson joined his colleagues in the groundbreaking consensus.
Capponi was still shaking as MPPs scurried off to the Legislature. “Holy sh–,” she said, realizing the huge responsibility she’d taken on.
Maria Van Bommel, a Liberal backbencher who’d remained behind, offered her congratulations. “We’re going to deal with the stigma of mental illness, one person at a time,” she vowed.
Capponi’s biggest backer wasn’t there. But Judge Ted Ormston, who chairs the Consent and Capacity Board, was confident she’d clear the final hurdle.
He was the one who recruited her. He put her through a rigorous screening. And he is excited about what Capponi will bring to the board. “Patients will look across the table at her and gain hope. It’s the single most powerful stigma-reducing thing there is.”
Ormston looks to her to help him eliminate the board’s us-and-them culture. “It’s only us.”
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