HALIFAX — At the height of his mental illness, Breton Umlah believed his family and friends were members of a shadowy intelligence agency, and he desperately wanted to join them.
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young man, Umlah’s search for the agency’s top secret building led him to a house in Halifax, where he scaled a fence, broke his ankle in a fall and — in great pain and emotional anguish — promptly took off his clothes.
“I was on a cocktail of medications that made me very manic, and that caused me to go psychotic,” he said in a recent interview, recalling the night in May 2012 when police charged him with four offences, including trespassing and mischief.
“On that particular night, I was not who I am … I was sick and my behaviour was not me.”
What happened next set Umlah, now 32, on a little-known path to recovery.
His story is the subject of one of three fascinating short films produced by criminology professor Jamie Livingston at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. The videos, part of Livingston’s “Forensic Mental Health Success Stories” project, are currently circulating through social media and are available online at https://vimeo.com/channels/fmhsuccessstories.
Each year, about 850 Canadians living with mental illness are deemed by a judge to be not criminally responsible for their illegal actions. That’s about 0.5 per cent of the 350,000 criminal cases that come before the courts every year.
“It’s a pretty rare defence,” says Livingston, whose videos focus on this branch of the justice system. “And it’s kind of a mysterious process as well.”
A judge eventually found Umlah not criminally responsible for his actions due to a mental disorder — a legal finding typically referred to as NCR. Instead of a jail term, Umlah went through the forensic mental health system.
He spent more than four months at the East Coast Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in the Halifax area, where he was given treatment for his mental illness and closely monitored in a medium-security setting.
The focus was on rehabilitation, not punishment.
But Umlah’s experience with the forensic system wasn’t easy.
“This isn’t just a hospital where you’re given privileges right away,” he said, adding that the hospital’s mentally ill offenders can be challenging to deal with. “You’re constantly observed and controlled. You’re only allowed so much freedom … It’s not fun.”
It would be almost two months before Umlah was allowed to leave the hospital for extended breaks.
Eventually, a review board granted him an unconditional discharge. But Umlah continued to receive support from Community Mental Health Service and Connections Halifax, a provincial program which offers life-skills training and medication monitoring.
“I started to thrive after that,” he says.
Today, Umlah works as a production manager for a small business in Halifax, and he occasionally makes presentations to Halifax Regional Police officers, telling them about his experiences with mental illness and recovery.
“People need to be made aware that success is possible for people who have mental illness,” he says.
Under the Criminal Code, an accused can be declared not criminally responsible if their mental disorder renders them either incapable of appreciating the nature of their actions or unable to understand that their actions were wrong.
The special verdict triggers an ongoing assessment process by a Criminal Code Review Board that is designed to seek rehabilitation and reintegration into society while ensuring protection of the public. The board can provide a range of orders, including absolute discharges, conditional discharges or detainment in a secure forensic hospital that can be extended indefinitely.
For those declared NCR, they tend to spend more time under some form of control than those processed through the traditional criminal justice system, Livingston says.
In the regular corrections system, about 40 to 60 per cent of those convicted of a crime will reoffend, Livingston says. Within the NCR system, the recidivism rate is about half that level — at about 10-20 per cent.
Livingston, who met Umlah about four years ago, says he interviewed 12 people before deciding on three stories that highlight successes within the NCR system.
“I think these videos can contribute to that larger social project of enlightening people about those who struggle with mental illness, and trying to break down some of the myths surrounding treatment services,” he says.
Breton’s story is told through a series of compelling, colourful images drawn by an artist as the story unfolds. Though it is Umlah’s story, the pseudonym Ryan is used.
“I have no problem with my name being associated with the video … I’m proud to spread awareness,” Umlah says. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
The second story follows Heather, a mother whose mental illness leads to an NCR designation, a year-long stay at the forensic hospital and a gradual recovery in the community as her family is slowly reunited. Her emotionally charged journey is illustrated through a series of beautiful paintings that appear on the pages of a children’s book.
The book, “Dear Sam,” opens with Heather telling her oldest son: ”This is the story of how your mom got lost, where I went, who I’ve been and who I am.”
The third story, told through spoken word poetry, is about Matt, a man whose battles with manic episodes, hallucinations, anxiety and depression lead to an arson charge and, eventually, a successful recovery with the guidance of the forensic health system.
“They don’t always tell you the part about resilience,” poet Andre Fenton tells viewers. “They don’t always tell you the part when (Matt) went to nursing school. They don’t always tell you the part when someone chooses to branch out, make a complete 180. Now he is the one helping people just like him.”
Despite its enviable success rate, the work of the forensic system is rarely portrayed in a positive light in the media.
“Whenever there’s an article about someone that has been through the forensic system … they don’t really show follow-up,” says Umlah. “They don’t really show where the person goes after the NCR finding by the courts.”
He says the short film about his six-year journey to mental wellness is something he’d like to share with a wider audience.
“These films can change lives because they can really change a person’s view of a part of the world that is often cast in dark light,” he says.