We rarely hear success stories about those with mental illness but we always hear the stories of chaos and mayhem. So we begin to assume that anyone with a mental illness is a potential threat. How else to explain the draconian methods used on Ashley Smith?  The story of Ashley Smith comes to us directly from the “lunatic asylums” of the 19th century, including the abuse of anti-psychotic drugs. Her treatment speaks to the ignorance of our understanding of mental illness, not only by lay people, but those within the medical system.

If someone incarcerated was showing signs and symptoms of a diabetic coma, that person would receive immediate care. People can develop a mental illness while incarcerated. Increased stresses, increased fear and anxiety, and isolation can trigger a crisis just like too much sugar can trigger a diabetic crisis in someone not previously diagnosed. The penal system confined a young person for throwing apples at a postman, to a solitary existence and then ignored her pleas and her deteriorating mental status, as if it were all “in her head;” just get over it, pull yourself together. That is one of many stigmas that need to be addressed.

I suggest that there are still too many amongst us who treat the mentally ill as if they were the next Norman Bates from Psycho, or a “patient” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Those images bring fear and that fear is taken out on those who are ill. Those guards, the police, the nurses treated Ashley as if she were the next Jeffrey Dahmer. There was no one within the institutions to be her advocate. Kim Pate, her advocate from Elizabeth Fry, for all that she tried to accomplish, was no match against the bureaucracy.

It is unconscionable to leave anyone, let alone a young person, in isolation for long periods of time, let alone someone who is exhibiting signs of mental illness.  How is it that the medical professionals at these facilities were unaware of the danger of leaving an anxious, depressed, frightened, and let’s face it, harmless person alone in a windowless room, with minimum clothing and in shackles? I would have labeled it a recipe for disaster but that would be too kind.

People with mental illnesses, especially those who are not a danger to others, and most especially our vulnerable young people, do not belong in a prison. They belong in a facility that will help them to get control over their illness and live good, productive lives. They need caring professionals who do not demean and belittle their illness. Mental illness is not a death sentence when treated with the same respect as we treat those with physical illnesses.

The money spent transporting her across the country to a plethora of institutions; on the police and guards and their protective suits; as if she had some horribly contagious disease; and the restraints, would have been better spent on mental health care; care to which she had a human right. Our governments, federal and provincial must be held accountable, not only for their lack of care within the system, but their attempts to hide the truth of the barbaric below standard care of a young girl.

And most importantly, we need to ask ourselves how have we become as a society, so mean-spirited? How do we explain the lack of compassion shown by so many involved in Ashley Smith’s life and horrible death? How did we get to a place where adults in authority would strap down a young girl as if she were Hannibal Lecter reincarnated and then threaten her with more physical abuse? Adults stood by and watched a human being, choke her own body and soul and did nothing. Just following orders. And how do those who want to prevent the truth from being told explain their position? We cannot make changes to the mental health system or the penal system if we fear looking at the facts, straight on, so that we can admit our failures and then make changes.