N.B. teen’s death exposes shortcomings of public mental health supports in Canada

TORONTO — The death by suicide of a New Brunswick teen who unsuccessfully sought help at a hospital highlights the lack of coordinated mental health supports available to Canadians, says a youth mental health advocate.

Sixteen-year-old Lexi Daken waited in a Fredericton hospital emergency room for eight hours on Feb. 18 only to be told a psychiatrist was not available. The Grade 10 student, who had been previously diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and depression after an earlier suicide attempt, ultimately left without receiving help and died last Wednesday.

It’s a story familiar to many Canadians who have struggled to find help for mental health issues, Executive Director of Youth Mental Health Canada Sheryl Boswell said on CTV’s Your Morning Monday.

“(It’s) so common across Canada. There are so many young people who are struggling with their mental health regardless of it being a pandemic,” she said. “So many families relate their own experiences of being told to reach out, young people being told to talk and what they see is a lack of a coordinated system a lack of mental health supports and services.”

According to Statistics Canada, ten Canadians on average die each day from suicide, and of the 5.3 million Canadians who reported needing help managing their mental health in 2018, nearly half had their needs either unmet or partially met. For Canadians without a regular health care provider, the numbers of those with unmet or partially met needs are higher.

While teens often don’t seek help for their mental health concerns, that was not the case here, as Daken’s school guidance counsellor accompanied her to the emergency room after becoming concerned about her behaviour.

“The majority of people in Canada do not come from privilege and do not have the finances to pay for mental health supports which are quite expensive, so a lot of people rely on publicly funded mental health supports,” said Boswell.

But hospitals are not the best place to seek mental health support, she added, with lengthy wait times and the possibility of being sent home without seeing anyone. 

“After 5:00 PM, before 7:00 AM the hospital is the only place in town,” she said. “We need to do much better. We need community-based solutions, we need short-term respite centres for the after-hours time period. We need proactive approaches,” she said.

The Horizon Health Network, which operates the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital in Fredericton, has called the situation “nothing sort of a tragedy” and says it will review its internal processes to determine where improvements could have been made.

But reacting to crises is all too common in Canada, says Boswell. What needs to happen is to ensure young people have skills, strategies and information to ensure their mental health needs are met.

“It feels like nobody’s listening and nobody cares and that was Lexi’s response, that she felt like a burden, that her needs weren’t important,” she said.

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