Case exposes failings of mental health system: lawyer

A mentally ill St. John's man was released back into the community Thursday after pleading guilty and serving time in jail for assault.
Taylor Mitchell, 21, is shown with his lawyer, Joan Dawson, in provincial court Thursday in St. John's. (CBC)

A mentally ill St. John's man was released back into the community Thursday after pleading guilty and serving time in jail for assault.

But his lawyer admits where he'll end up next is anyone's guess.

"It is really, really atrocious, and it says a lot about how people with serious mental illnesses .. how can they function in the community, without appropriate supports?" Joan Dawson told reporters outside provincial court.

Taylor Mitchell, 21, was charged with assault and uttering threats after he ran at his father and step-mother with a chainsaw, as they pulled up in a car. It happened Jan. 14 outside Mitchell's grandmother's home on Thorburn Road.

Mitchell eventually put the chainsaw in a shed, but returned and punched his father in the face.

Police were called and Mitchell was arrested and later denied bail, spending his time since then at Her Majesty's Penitentiary.

But Dawson says that's the last place he should've been, given his bi-polar and schizoaffective disorders.

"I think as a community, we need to have more appropriate housing for individuals like him (where) the big issue is his complex mental health problems and needs," she said.

Mitchell's mental health issues surfaced at the age of 17 when he was first admitted to hospital.

Over the past four years he would be in and out of the Waterford Hospital seven more times, for a total of about 200 days.

The incident in January was his first run-in with the law, and in some ways led him away from the help and support Dawson says he needs.

Not eligible for mental health court

For example, Mitchell wasn't eligible for the more specialized mental health court because he was denied bail, and therefore was living in jail instead of in the community.

But now that he's a free man again, he has no money, no job, and no place to live.

Dawson said she tried to find space at several of the appropriate shelters in St. John's, but there were few, if any beds available.

That left only the option of asking for emergency funding from the provincial government's Department of Advanced Skills and Education - money that could help him find a place to stay until his probation officer can help him find suitable housing.

Dawson said the scenario is becoming a disturbing trend for the mentally ill.

"It seems like the shift now is over to the justice system, so that jail is the institution that has more mentally ill people than hospitals do," she said.

"I think until people are prepared to demand that there be better housing for the mentally ill that it's not going to happen."