On Richard Kachkar, retribution and “not criminally responsible”

It was a sad day for Christine Russell on March 27 as she listened to a judge rule that Richard Kachkar, the man who killed Russell’s police officer husband Ryan with a snowplow two years ago, was not criminally responsible for his actions.

Kachkar had been evaluated by three top psychiatrists, one of whom had been hired by the crown.

Russell’s death followed Kachkar’s early morning break from a homeless shelter as he went on to run through the snowy streets barefoot with no jacket, yelling about “Chinese technology,” Facebook and the Taliban. The psychiatrists on trial found that Kachkar was experiencing severe psychosis at the time.

Christine Russell has not disclosed her opinions on the legitimacy of Kachkar’s illness or mental state. She has, however, expressed that her husband, killed in the line of duty, “deserved better,” and that the ruling will follow her and her young son for the rest of their lives, that there is no closure and that knowing that Kachkar is “free” will haunt her son. She is urging Prime Minister Stephen Harper to push forward a bill that will tighten restrictions on people found to be not criminally responsible for crimes committed.

While Russell’s grief should be taken into account for her statements, her reaction has made me worry about our country’s current attitude toward mentally unhealthy “criminals” and the pedestal on which we place police officers.

Russell repeated that her husband was killed in the line of duty upon giving her reactions to the media. She also produced a family photo during the trial and asked Richard Kachkar to look at her family.

Mrs. Russell does not appear to understand that a person who is unable to appreciate the impact of what they’re doing certainly cannot appreciate the grief of a family without a father. Every death is tragic, and Ryan Russell certainly died a hero, but the tragedy of a death does not correlate with the intent of the killer.

More disturbingly, Christine Russell seems to have somewhat of a desire for revenge against mister Kachkar. I am sure that many have remarked, maybe even to the widow herself, that even finding Richard Kachkar guilty of first degree murder would not have given her the “closure” that she so craves. Her husband is still gone. As for how her four-year-old son copes with the loss of his father, that is up for Christine to decide how she wishes to approach the issue.

If she frequently tells her son that his father was killed by a bad man who is walking free now, of course it will strike fear into the heart of the young boy.

However, if she tells her son that her father was killed by a very sick man who did not mean to do something so awful and is getting the help that he needs and we hope he will never do it again, that is obviously different. It will teach her son to sympathize and not to fear the mentally ill, and instead of fearing for his own safety to hope that mister Kachkar gets better and that no family has to go through what his family did.

I fear that Christine Russell will teach her young son to be fixated on revenge from a very young age, and that he will become a young Bruce Wayne, minus the billionaire superhero part, forever searching for a feeling of completeness that can never be filled.

We must learn to divorce ourselves from the very legitimate emotions of the victims and their families when being critical of the perpetrators’ mental states. How angry someone is at someone else should not affect whether or not someone gets a fair chance at rehabilitation.

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Lip service to mental illness is not the final frontier

It seems you can’t pick up a student newspaper, hear a student council election speech or pass by a campus bulletin without seeing or hearing the words “mental health.”

Mental health: we need to talk about it. Mental health: it’s as important as physical health. Mental health: erasing the stigma.

This is good, right? We do need to talk about mental health issues, especially among university students. I first noticed the increased saturation of conversations about mental heath at my alma matter, Wilfrid Laurier University, following a tragic and terrifying residence fire in my freshman year, 2009, which resulted in the death of one student, a well-liked varsity athlete. The fire was ruled as a suicide the following school year, and residence life dons were subject to more thorough training to recognize issues similar to the ones which lead to the tragedy.

The problem I now see is that “mental health” has become a new buzz-term said over and over by people who either don’t understand or don’t want to talk about the severity of mental illness.

In attempting to remove the “stigma” of mental illness, we’ve also avoided talking about the parts of mental illness that are downright ugly.

The words “mental health” are used in such general, nonchalant ways and as a result all mental health problems are regarded as homogeneous, with homogeneous solutions. Campus “experts” often cite class stress, separation anxiety from home, adjustment to a new life and relationship problems as common issues for students, and while these certainly need to be addressed, it seems that they are pussyfooting around some real big, significant problems — problems that maybe aren’t so easy to “just talk” about.

As many times as I have simply heard the words “mental health,” “issues,” and “stress,” and occasionally the words “depression” and “anxiety,” I could count on one hand the number of times I have heard the words “self-harm,” “suicide,” “disordered eating,” “addiction,” “abuse,” “post-traumatic stress disorder” or “assault” used in mental health campaigns.

Launching campaigns to assure people that they’re not alone and they’re not weird because they’re stressed out is all well and good, but there’s a difference between common anxieties shared by the vast majority of a student body and far grittier problems such as addiction.

While I definitely cooed at the notion of Laurier’s “puppy room” last December during fall 2012 exams, to hear that it was regarded as a “mental health” campaign only further emphasized to me that student mental health campaigns are still merely scratching the surface of true mental health problems. Not every problem can be solved with a puppy. In fact, most cannot.

Having someone to discuss your issues with is often invaluable, but that does not mean that it is helpful for everyone. Money being put toward mental health issues for post-secondary students should be put into more councillors equipped for dealing with very specific problems, not bubblegum poster campaigns.