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North Vancouver teen's death points to gaps in youth mental health care: report

A North Vancouver teen who killed himself by jumping from a construction crane at B.C. Children’s Hospital in 2015 fell through the cracks in a fragmented system of care for youth with mental illness, said Bernard Richard, B.C.’s representative for children and youth.

Richard, the province’s independent child advocate, reviewed the circumstances leading up to the 17-year-old’s death from suicide in a report released on Wednesday. He called on the government to set up a full continuum of care for youth struggling with mental illness.

That system needs to seamlessly co-ordinate care for youth across government departments, said Richard.

Currently, help for teens with mental illness is provided by different agencies that “don’t always work well together, let alone communicate well,” said Richard. “If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve heard it from this office before,” Richard added.

Help for the North Vancouver teen’s family often fell through the cracks, despite efforts of people who were trying to help, said Richard.

“These gaps need to be filled,” he said.

Richard said the creation of B.C.’s new mental health and addictions ministry is a sign that government is taking mental health seriously.

Richard did not make an estimate of how much money would be required to adequately fund mental health services for youth, but noted other provinces, like New Brunswick, have put systems in place. “It’s hardly a rich province . . . ” he said. “It’s possible for it to be done.”

Richard acknowledged the North Vancouver teen – referred to by the pseudonym Joshua in the report, but previously publicly identified as Alex Malamalatabua – had complex needs that defied easy solutions.

“We cannot say with any certainty that his death could have been prevented if Joshua and his family received better services,” said Richard. But a comprehensive mental health system would have given him a better chance, said Richard.

The report into the circumstances leading up to the teen’s death paints a picture of a single mother who was committed to trying to help her son but often had trouble accessing help, despite repeated requests.

Signs of serious mental illness emerged when “Joshua” was only a toddler, and escalated alarmingly once he reached elementary school, but help for the family was limited, the report noted. Support was offered in a crisis, but was usually withdrawn at the first signs of improvement.

As a teen, “Joshua” was hospitalized twice on adult psychiatric wards, as no services for youth existed at that time.

Following a March 2015 suicide attempt in the North Shore backcountry, during which he was rescued by North Shore Rescue, the teen was eventually admitted to Children’s Hospital.

He lived the last four months of his life there while caseworkers tried without success to find a suitable place for the teen to live upon release.

Richard said there remains a dire need for intermediate residential treatment programs for youth with mental illness.

Bowinn Ma, NDP MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale, described Richard’s report as a “heart-wrenching account” of the way the system had failed the North Vancouver teen. “My heart goes out to the family,” she said.

Ma said cabinet ministers are committed to putting a co-ordinated system in place for youth with mental illness. “That plan is being developed,” she said.

Jane Thornthwaite, MLA for North Vancouver-Seymour, chaired an all-party committee under the Liberals that made many of the same recommendations to government. Thornthwaite described the teen’s death as tragic. “The government could have done more,” she said.

Thornthwaite noted there have been improvements in services for youth with mental illness since the teen’s death, including the opening of a specialized 10-bed unit for youth psychiatric care in North Vancouver’s HOpe Centre in March and community hubs including North Vancouver’s Foundry which opened last month in Lower Lonsdale.

Mountainside alternate school, run by the school district, also offers a range of services for teens, she noted.

Thornthwaite said she’d like to see more mental health services available in all schools.

By Jane Seyd

5 October 2017  

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