Mental health system failing, says Calgary widow

A Calgary widow says Alberta's mental health system failed her husband, allowing him to kill himself in a hospital room.

Advocates blame lack of funding and political will

Shayne Anonson killed himself on Feb. 18 in a Calgary Hospital after seeking help for depression and alcoholism. ((CBC))

A Calgary widow says Alberta's mental health system failed her husband, allowing him to kill himself in a hospital room.

Shayne Anonson, 44, had struggled with depression and alcoholism, so when he finally admitted in February that he needed professional help, his wife, Terri-Lee Anonson, eagerly drove him to the Rockyview General Hospital in February.

The woman recalled that as she drove up to the hospital entrance, which overlooked a lower level, her husband said, "Stop, that's the perfect place to jump. That will do, it's better than nothing."

She electronically locked the doors and alarmed the truck, then ran into the emergency department where she found security guards to come out and escort her husband into the hospital, she told CBC News on Monday.

Anonson said she thought her obviously suicidal husband would get the help he needed, but he was put into a medical unit, in a room that had at least three doors between it and the nurses' station.

Her husband was allowed to keep disposable razors, as well as an electric razor and cellphone charger which both had cords, and the belt in his pants, despite two previous suicide attempts, said Anonson, who thought there would have been tighter oversight if he had been in a psychiatric ward.

On his fifth day in the hospital, records obtained by CBC News show that Shayne Anonson was last checked at 4:35 p.m. No other checks are noted until the next morning at 8 a.m. when he was found dead.

"They went to see if he was in the bathroom, and when the nurse opened the bathroom door, she heard his body fall to the ground. He had used a transfer belt that a nurse had left in his room to hang himself," said Terri-Lee.

"I'm angry at the health-care system. It took a whole year for him to admit he needed the help, and that he couldn't do it himself. And they let him down, they let me down, they let my family down."

An official with Alberta Health Services said there is an ongoing investigation into the Shayne Anonson case by its mental health and addictions branch, but could not comment specifically about it.

According to the chief medical examiner's office, 462 people took their own lives in Alberta in 2007, with 142 of them in Calgary.

Province ignoring mentally ill

Health-care advocates say treatment for people with mental health struggles has fallen to the bottom of the province's priority list.

"There's a lack of resources, a lack of psychiatrists, a lack of hospital beds in psych wards," said Rick Lundy, head of the Open Arms Patient Advocacy Society. "It's just a mess. I think mental health has been forgotten about for many years, and now we're in a crisis situation."

Dr. Lloyd Maybaum, a forensic psychiatrist based at Calgary's Peter Lougheed Centre, has three days to treat people in crisis and then discharge them with a treatment plan.

His unit started a followup clinic to help patients until they can get into treatment but even that is now overflowing.

"All of our adaptations we've tried to employ to deal with the situation are also being thwarted by just the sheer volume and the lack of outpatient services," he said.

Waits could bring harm

The waits are resulting in people getting readmitted to hospitals because they're not getting the help they need. Maybaum worries that as the wait times get longer, more people could be harming themselves.

"All of us are just … trying to do anything we can to keep the whole system up in the air, and all these balls we're trying to be juggling but eventually I can see that the system is going to completely fall apart," said Maybaum.

Terri-Lee Anonson flips through an album of photos of her husband, Shayne. ((CBC))

Some blame a lack of political will.

"Mental health issues are looked on as somewhat insignificant in comparison to a broken arm. To say that mental health is on the bottom rung of the ladder is putting it much higher than it really is. I think it's not on the ladder," said Fay Herrick of the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta.

In January, Alberta Health Services back-pedalled after widespread public opposition and announced it will keep open 146 of the 246 acute care psychiatric beds slated for closure at Edmonton's Alberta Hospital.

Terri-Lee Anonson hopes that by sharing her story, something will change in the system to save other families from the grief she's gone through.

"I believe if [Shayne's] pain, if the mental health issues would have been addressed, then he would have been equipped and had the tools and the spirit from that dark place to pursue recovery," she said.