‘The mental health system is not working’
A Nelson man won’t have to leave town as originally ordered, but his mother says his case shows how poorly equipped the courts are to deal with mental illness.
Mikael Arrak, 26, grabbed national attention last week after a judge told him to serve the rest of a probation sentence for criminal harassment somewhere else and gave him a deadline to be on a Greyhound bus.
The order was quashed once it became apparent it resulted from a misunderstanding, but Arrak’s mother Annely says it’s cold comfort.
“He wasn’t thrown out of the community, but in the bigger picture, nothing really is accomplished,” she says. “The real reason I want this story told is the mental health system is not working.”
Arrak has been diagnosed with depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
“He’s been given every possible label, and that just shows they really don’t know what it is,” Annely says.
Last year, a psychiatrist admitted to her that the system has failed him.
“He said ‘It’s not his fault, we just don’t know how to help him.’”
Mikael has applied for jobs and tried to work, but can only handle short shifts. He is unable to live by himself, and has been in and out of psychiatric facilities. He is sensitive to substances, both legal and illegal, and becomes manic on diet pills as easily as street drugs.
When Mikael does well, he’s an “intelligent, bright, polite, sensitive young man,” his mother says.
“He reads, meditates, plays chess and tennis, works out at the gym. He is very good doing research on the computer and talking on the phone.”
However, when he’s not doing well, “he is very difficult to deal with.”
Although Annely says Mikael is not violent, he sometimes intimidates people. When he is manic, he roams the streets, laughs aloud, talks to strangers, and stares at them.
A year and a half ago, he pled guilty to harassing an ex-girlfriend and was sentenced to three years probation and placed under a no-contact order with her family.
Last month, he was discharged from a Vancouver hospital, but had no place to go. He phoned his mother, saying he was on the streets, cold and hungry.
His younger brother, who lives with roommates in Vancouver, brought him back to Nelson for Christmas.
Then two weeks ago, Mikael spoke at length on the street with his ex-girlfriend’s mother, who afterward called police. He was arrested and spent the weekend in jail.
When Annely finally learned where he was, she says she wasn’t allowed to see him or to pass along his medication.
The following Monday, Mikael appeared in court, represented by Kenyon McGee, the duty counsel for that day.
He pled guilty to two counts of breaching his probation order and said he wanted to go back to Vancouver — although he had no place to stay.
Judge Ron Fabbro obliged, telling him to get on a bus and not return to Nelson until his probation ended in 18 months.
Annely says no one consulted her. “This whole thing was a total misunderstanding. Whatever Mikael said was interpreted as the truth.”
She went to the media, which swiftly resulted in a new hearing on Thursday to reassess the situation. Mikael, suffering paranoid delusions, fired his lawyer and represented himself.
He claimed he was the target of assassination plots and wanted refuge at the Estonian embassy in Ottawa. (The Arraks are Estonian immigrants.)
Everyone involved agreed sending him out of the area was not appropriate, so with the Crown’s consent, Fabbro revoked the order and struck his guilty pleas. Mikael was released on an undertaking and will return to court February 22.
Although it was suggested he may have a place at the Stepping Stones shelter, for the moment he is in hospital. Annely says a mental health worker who came to court saw Mikael needed help, “so in a twisted way he got to the place he should have been in the first place.”
Patients cannot be forced to stay in treatment unless they meet certain criteria, such as posing a danger to themselves or others, which Annely calls “good and humane,” but “unfortunately for those parents and caregivers who really care about and love their mentally ill family member, sometimes it just does not work.”
She told the court that while she accepted caring for her son as her family duty, after six years, she is burned out. She has asked for respite care, but was told it isn’t available.
(In any case, she wants Mikael coping independently with his illness, rather than relying entirely on his family or the mental health system. She says he would do best living with others in supervised housing, but with his own room and cooking his own food.)
Fabbro replied: “The issues you raise are very difficult, but I have to deal with the matters before the court. I wish I was able to respond to the problems you are undergoing, but they’re beyond my capability to resolve.”
He said mentally ill people are brought before the courts almost daily, but “the court system is ill-equipped in many ways to deal with these issues and problems.”
While Annely doesn’t blame the judge, she still feels it’s not right.
“People with mental illness are either thrown in jail or are on the streets, which are now a modern mental hospital. When somebody has a physical illness, there is help, but when someone has something wrong with their brain, people are scared of them. They are basically isolated.”
She doesn’t know the solution, but felt she had to speak up to prevent a tragedy. She doesn’t want Mikael dying on Vancouver’s streets.
Annely is heartened at the support she has since received: phone calls from around the province, and emails from people she’s never met. She is stopped on the street and called courageous.
“I’m hoping that having all this attention will change something,” she says. “I love my son and have lots of sympathy for families who have similar situations. I hope those people will get the help and care they need.”