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Lost in the Shadows: Lack of mental health services explored in report

Chief Joe Alphonse of Anaham Reserve hopes his community becomes a safer place that everyone is proud of. - Monica Lamb-Yorski photo
Chief Joe Alphonse of Anaham Reserve hopes his community becomes a safer place that everyone is proud of.
— image credit: Monica Lamb-Yorski photo

A report into the tragic death of an Anaham teen shines a harsh light on the lack of mental health services available to families and children in crisis.

The teen, who committed suicide three years ago, was raised with a mom who struggled with bouts of severe mental illness.

The mom heard voices telling her to harm her children. She had violent episodes about five times a year and even expressed to health professionals during her first pregnancy she was worried about her ability to care for a child. She wondered if she should give her baby up for adoption, but was persuaded to keep her.

An investigation into the teen’s death by the Representative for Children and Youth and subsequent report Lost in the Shadows: How a Lack of Help Meant a Loss of Hope For One First Nations Girl found one of the key factors in the tragedy was the mother’s mental health and its effects on the teen, her grandparents and younger sister, who all lived together most of the girl’s life.

In an effort to improve health services for First Nations communities such as Anaham, Lost in the Shadows’ author Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond explores the mother’s history, recounting that shortly after the girl’s birth the mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. When her younger brother died in a car accident, people around her noticed her mental health deteriorated from there.

“While she had many interactions with physicians, nurses and psychiatrists, none of them sufficiently explored the physical and emotional risks to her children or to the grandparents posed by her illness,” the report states.

Turpel-Lafond told the Tribune the mother had serious periods of time when she could not parent.

Eventually it was recommended she not be left alone with her children, but some times the grandparents needed a break and would leave to go to town or go camping.

That was when bad things would happen.

When left alone with their mother, the girl would barricade herself and her younger sister in a bedroom to protect both of them from the mother’s unpredictable behaviour, the report noted.

Several times she called the RCMP to report her mother’s actions.

Describing the mom’s situation as an example of a “barbaric” way to approach mental health, Turpel-Lafond said anywhere else arrangements would have been made for respite care — alternative care for the children to give their grandparents a break.

“There would be things in place for when mom falls down so she can get herself together and come back.”

The mother had more than 40 contacts with the health profession in the Cariboo-Chilcotin health region in terms of psychiatrists, physicians and nurses and only one report went to the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), yet this was a family in crisis, her report noted.

One of six recommendations which came out of Turpel-Lafond’s report requires the Ministry of Health and MCFD to improve service collaboration and co-ordination for families where there is a parent with a mental illness.

That deadline is fast approaching. Turpel-Lafond set April 30 as the date for planning and implementation of the recommendation.

Top of the list is the suggestion that both ministries need to take immediate steps to ensure all staff and professionals understand the risk factors relating to children of parents with a serious untreated mental illness and ensure the safety and well-being of children.

Another recommendation, with a deadline of July 31, is that the MCFD provide effective Children and Youth Mental Health Services.

Responding, the MCFD said it is looking to improve its part of the mental health system, but acknowledged that is something it cannot do on its own.

“We need to work with all of our partners including First Nations leaders and the Federal Government,” the ministry said in an e-mail.

“We are working with our service partners, stakeholders and Aboriginal partners to strengthen the system.”

For children and youth with special needs, the ministry said it is working with partners to explore alternative ways to deliver services to improve access, reduce wait lists, address overlaps and better support children according to their age.

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