A woman writes a message on a makeshift memorial remembering the victims of a shooting on Sunday evening on Danforth Avenue, in Toronto on Tuesday, July 24, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

Psychiatric body warns against stigmatizing mentally ill after Toronto shooting

Faisal Hussain killed two people and injured 13 when he unleashed a hail of bullets along Toronto’s Danforth Avenue

The man responsible for a deadly shooting in the heart of Toronto’s Greektown may have struggled with mental illness, but the body representing the country’s psychiatrists cautioned that tying his psychiatric history with his recent actions risks stigmatizing those contending with similar issues.

Faisal Hussain killed two people and injured 13 when he unleashed a hail of bullets along the city’s Danforth Avenue on Sunday night. The attack ended after he exchanged fire with two officers and was found dead nearby. Hussain’s parents have since outlined their son’s battle with depression and psychosis.

The Canadian Psychiatric Association warned Thursday that making Hussain’s mental state a focal point of discussions around the shooting misrepresents the majority of people grappling with similar circumstances and risks deepening the stigma they already face.

“The perception that mental illness carries with it a potential for violence has been proven wrong in many studies,” association president Dr. Nachiketa Sinha said in a statement. “The best risk factor for future violence is previous violence – whether one is mentally ill or not.”

Discussion of Hussain’s psychiatric struggles entered the narrative around the Danforth shooting less than a day after it came to an end.

As a shocked city was still learning about the circumstances that killed 18-year-old Reese Fallon and 10-year-old Julianna Kozis, Hussain’s family issued a statement offering a few details on their son.

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The family disclosed that the 29-year-old had struggled with “severe mental health challenges” for years, adding that medication, therapy and other interventions were unsuccessful. Hussain’s parents also decried their son’s “senseless violence,” described his actions as “horrific,” and offered condolences to families of the attack’s victims.

Subsequent media reports dug deeper into Hussain’s life, publishing accounts from former teachers who shared accounts of alarming behaviour he exhibited while still in his teens.

The psychiatric association said Hussain is an outlier among mental health patients, citing several studies that challenge the link between mental illness and violent conduct.

Sinha said current research suggests people with a “major mental illness” are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violence than other members of society.

The association also cited research from the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health that found only a small number of violent crimes are committed by someone with a serious mental illness. Only four per cent of those convicted of homicide, the study said, were deemed not criminally responsible for their actions due to a psychiatric disorder.

Sinha said the association condemns Hussain’s actions, but said discussing them solely in the context of his mental illness risks doing other patients a disservice.

“It is critical that we do not connect the risk of violence with mental illness,” Sinha said. “It is a dangerous stigma to reinforce in a society that has come so far in acknowledging the lives, contributions and successful recovery of the many individuals impacted by mental illness.”

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Fardous Hosseiny, national director of research and public policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association, echoed the association’s warning.

He said efforts to combat stigma have made a noticeable impact in recent years, prompting more people to speak openly about their struggles and seek help if needed. Conflating mental illness and violence, he cautioned, could undo much of that progress.

“What we will see as a result of this is that people will go into hiding even more,” he said. “What we’ve been trying to advocate is for them to come out and say ‘you know what? I need help. I need services and support.’ As soon as they get those supports, recovery is possible.”

The Canadian Press

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