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The Soloist including discussion with Dr John Gray
Special event for Mental Illness Awareness Week
5 October 2009

Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles newspaper writer, discovers Nathaniel Ayers, a mentally ill, homeless street musician who possesses extraordinary talent. Although playing a battered violin with two strings, he was once a gifted cellist. Inspired by his story, Lopez writes an acclaimed series of articles about Ayers and attempts to do more to help both him and the rest of the underclass of LA have a better life. However, Lopez's good intentions run headlong in the hard realities of the strength of Ayers' personal demons (stemming from a treatable brain illness)and the larger social injustices facing the homeless.

This new feature film, based on a true story*, is an opening for a lively discussion about how we treat our homeless and/or mentally ill citizens, (breaking news again recently). Pg13 some language and drug use. trailer

* The real life story. Also: An amazing 60 Minute piece about the real story (12 minutes).

Our guest: John Gray, PhD has worked as a psychologist clinician and psychiatric hospital director in Saskatchewan. In B.C. he was an
John Gray
Assistant Executive Director at Riverview Hospital and worked in the Ministry of Health, Mental Health Services for over 20 years. John currently serves on the Victoria and provincial boards of the BC Schizophrenia Society and is a past president of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada. He is lead author of the recently published book "Canadian Mental Health Law and Policy".

I and Dr Gray want to add these thoughts to in the discussion after the film. (Dr Gray's in blue italics)

Two weeks earlier, this issue of "what's best for the homeless?" was breaking news in Vancouver as police and the city stumbled over whether and how forcefully they would get people into shelter, especially when they are seen to be in danger in cold weather on the streets. A couple of well publicized cases recently have caused them to react, and some would suggest this is an attempt to clear the streets for a tidy Olympic image. It's interesting that, as in the film, the issue has since all but disappeared from the media spotlight.

It will come back again if legislation is introduced and it can only be achieved if there is legislation passed by the legislature. As well it is unlikely to be useful in "clearing the streets" as it will, presumably only apply to those at physical risk from injury or death if they are not taken to the shelter against their will, and that will be a relatively small number.

We covered the idea that Mr Ayers became ill as a young man and what would the outcome for him have been if he had had "early intervention"? (treatment for the symptoms when he first became ill, something that is much more common these days). Likely he would have stayed in school, with a more normal life, and with a family that may have better been able to support him - and perhaps his musical gift and a balanced life would have been realized.

However, since his brain illness made him believe he was not ill he likely would have rejected treatment as he did later and the result would have been the same. It is lack of treatment that caused his problems including his homelessness. Involuntary treatment laws, which he would have qualified for even in California when he attacked his family as his psychosis developed (danger to others,) would have allowed him to be admitted and treated. By definition 100% if involuntary patients object to their admission but, after involuntary treatment, studies show that over 60% say that admission against their will was the right thing to do and treatment was helpful.

My thought was that the part of reason he acted so violently about his label of schizophrenia being written on his documents was partly his paranoia, but probably also partly the treatment he had received along the way. In his years on the street he would have had scrapes with authorities; both police and medical systems cavalierly applying action with the diagnosis as a reason, probably harsh treatment from both camps. (Maybe that is true but generally the medical system ignores you if you don't want services voluntarily or you don't qualify for involuntary treatment. Similarly, there are too many homeless people for the police to pick on him unless there was some violence or annoyance involved.) One would get a sensitivity to the term if it was directly connected with what felt like punishment. This is custom work. It takes time and empathy to work with people who are experiencing psychosis, resources that both systems are usually short of. (Is "empathy" and no help over 20 years for a person with a treatable illness who does not realize he is ill because of the illness not shear neglect by society?)

Over the years of survival of both symptoms and street life Ayers would have a long history of problems, ad hoc solutions, strengths, weaknesses that come with mental illness and possibly addictions and often an array of other physical conditions. Yes but he had a treatable illness with available treatment and a system, including laws, that should have helped.

Dr Gray mentioned we might consider whether his mental health and quality of life was improved from the beginning to end of the film. My thought was that the acknowledgement of his gift and talent was a huge boost. Access to good instruments and mentoring (it seems, in reality, more consistent and constructive than in the film), and involvement with the orchestra must be a huge benefit to his ego. He still has problems but he is acknowledged as having special abilities and an identity. Every person, homeless, mentally ill or not, seeks that. We are all real people with real dreams and possibilities. He has been lifted out of the anonymous "homeless hoard" - which has to be positive in many respects, as it can bring its own problems (as seen in the film when the spotlight is on Mr Ayers at his recital).

Yes but he is still hugely dys-functional compared with his peers at Juliard Music college. If this was due to a car accident so be it but it is because of a treatable illness and it is neglect or worse that allows American society to neglect its ill vulnerable citizens in such a way and this is largely because of their laws. There is a good bit in a Lopez column about another person who was an excellent musician and after many years on the street took medication and did well. He then got involved in helping other homeless people. It just shows the effectiveness of treatment even when a person has decended to homelessness.

For sure check out the extras on the DVD and the material, including the Lopez columns and book The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music written by Mr Lopez.

Related films are documentaries Jupiter's Wife (NY), The Devil And Daniel Johnson, and The Devil Plays Hardball (Vancouver, BC).

A feature film that follows a true story about a musican who was lucky enough to be taken up by a woman who helps him back to the concert stage and a supported life, Shine.

All these films are available at MM's supporting video store Yo Video at the Foul Bay/ Cadboro Bay plaza, 250- 592-5678.