'Insanity' Canadian filmmaker exposes the shocking way we treat people with mental illness

"I just found that so shocking, that we would treat people with a mental illness that way and that would be how their lives would end," Wendy Hill-Tout said

Wendy Hill-Tout's brother Bruce, who had schizophrenia, disappeared 25 years ago.

Now, through her movie Insanity, the filmmaker evaluates and exposes the lack of support for people with mental illness.

“So many people on mental health checks were getting shot by police, and I think that angered me the most,” Hill-Tout told Yahoo Canada. “I don't blame the police, I think it's a lack of training and I think that they're trying to make efforts to do that, to understand the illness better.”

“But I think I just found that so shocking, that we would treat people with a mental illness that way and that would be how their lives would end.”

Insanity from filmmaker Wendy Hill-Tout
Insanity from filmmaker Wendy Hill-Tout

To tell this story, Hill-Tout blends interviews with support workers and other experts with her own personal story about her brother, speaking to her family members as well, reflecting on Bruce's childhood and how his illness progressed when he was in his 20s.

“It was a challenge and I was worried it wouldn't work,” Hill-Tout said. “I was hoping it would work because I was trying to use my family to tell my brother's story in a humanistic way so that people would see people with a mental illness as people who were loved, who were loved by families, who were friends, and that they were human beings.”

“That's why I wanted to hold up the light to show families and to show the impact on them.”

Ultimately, Hill-Tout recognized that it is still "painful" for her family to talk about.

“Our first screening was at the Calgary International Film Festival, my family all attended, and we’re in a Q&A afterwards and I think for my father, it was the hardest," Hill-Tout said, getting emotional reminiscing about the moment. "Because there was one point where he said, ‘I just can't say any more.’ But he really supports the film."

Insanity from filmmaker Wendy Hill-Tout
Insanity from filmmaker Wendy Hill-Tout

For Insanity, Hill-Tout also includes an actor reenacting moments in Bruce's life being remembered by his family, as a way to visually show what he and Hill-Tout's family went through.

“He reminds me so much of my brother when he was at his worst state,” the filmmaker said. “He wasn't always like that when he was in treatment, when he was doing well, but when he was at his worst, he was like that.”

Hill-Tout is also expertly able to exemplify how we judge people we pass on the street with mental illness, stressing that everyone is a human being and deserves respect and kindness. As she interacted with homeless populations for the film, she was very deliberate in how they're shown in Insanity.

"What I found, in downtown Vancouver, they've had so many cameras in there, and they feel like they're sort of like animals in a zoo," she said. "People are coming to look at them and I didn't want to do that."

"So I blurred their faces out of respect. ... Sometimes they're ashamed. … They don't necessarily want people to see them on film. So we were very cognizant in terms of treating them with respect and dignity.”

Insanity from filmmaker Wendy Hill-Tout
Insanity from filmmaker Wendy Hill-Tout

'It's still there. It still haunts you'

In going through this process, Hill-Tout identified that she learned more about the nature of grief and what that means when a loved one is missing. While a statement that's often said is that "it will get better," that hasn't really been the case for her when it comes to Bruce.

As Hill-Tout describes in the film, as she travelled to Vancouver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, she would look for her brother’s face among the homeless population in those cities.

“When someone's missing for your family, it doesn't get better,” Hill-Tout said. “It's still there. It still haunts you. We still think about my brother. … We still wonder if he's out there.”

“So I think that was something I didn't realize. I think because you kind of shut it out. Shut it out and you go on with your life.”

The filmmaker also stressed that mental illness is still very much a "silent illness" that isn't talked about enough.

"I think it's better now, it's better now than it was say 15 years ago, or 10 years ago," Hill-Tout said. "I think people are much more aware of mental illness, but I still find when you meet someone it's only when you speak about your own person, your family, that they volunteer, Oh, I have a brother. I have a sister. I have a mother. I have a cousin. I have a best friend."

"There's such a stigma and that's such a sad part of this illness, and I think it prevents many people from getting treatment and from getting help, and that as a society is something we have to face up to. … We have to do something and they're vulnerable, and as a society we have responsibility to do more.”

She added that there is also an education component that's missing for many.

“I think we need to start in our schools," Hill-Tout said. "I think every school should be talking about mental illness and what the symptoms are."

“It could be their friend and a friend couldn't help, whether it's they're suicidal, and they needed to see someone with experience to talk to. Or whether they're starting to have delusions or starting to talk about weird things. We as a society need to do more to educate people on mental illness and it has to be at every level of education.”