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April 4, 2013

Question:  What the are the limits of personal or ethical responsibility when an individual is suffering from mental illness or addiction?

The lack of particulars requires the following parameters and assumptions: I assume the question refers to the afflicted individual, not to the caregiver; the broad term “mental illness” includes significant differences, such as those that exist between, say, being bipolar and suffering from paranoid schizophrenia; mental illness and addiction can be two different issues. The addict does not necessarily have a diagnosed mental illness. These qualifications being made, here are a few reflections.

The object will be at all times to treat and to cure both addiction and mental illness. Depending on the circumstances, it would be helpful to obtain medical diagnosis, either from a physician, or the individual involved, that we are dealing with real addiction or mental illness. Amateur judgements may not be accurate. However, with certain individuals, it will be only too painfully obvious that he/she is mentally ill or addicted.

Being bipolar or schizophrenic, for example, and depending on the task, may have definite effects on one’s ability either to perform work related tasks and/or to being in functional relationships. For safety reasons, were I hiring a bus driver, I would want to know whether or not the candidate were taking meds that might affect the ability to drive safely. Similarly, were I bipolar or schizophrenic, I would hope that truth-telling would prompt me to share this fact with a loved one with whom I were in an intimate relationship.

Since this respondent is not a lawyer, I will exclude speculations on criminal liability, but the defence of “diminished responsibility,” which is much easier to prove than insanity, has exonerated those charged with serious crimes such as murder. In these cases, the law recognizes that personal or ethical responsibility has been impaired by mental defect.

What is vitally important in cases of either mental illness or addiction is to prevail upon the individual to seek medical remedies and to follow the advice of competent physicians or spiritual counsellors. Failure to do so is a dereliction of duty, which can have disastrous social or legal consequences. A drunk driver cannot use alcoholism (addiction) as a legal defence if he kills or maims innocent bystanders.  
-  Jack McLean

Printed in the The Ottawa Citizen April 4, 2013
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