Families and friends of 3 who died in psych hospital seek answers

Family and friends of three people who died by suicide at West 5th last year are upset and raising questions about the hospital as they grieve.

'As a family, we all thought, you know, he’s in a safe place, this is where he should be': Father

Brandon Taylor was 29 when he died at St. Joe's West 5th campus last August. (Jenn Smyth)

Brandon Taylor's family thought he would get the help he needed when he was admitted involuntarily to the West 5th campus of St. Joe's hospital last summer.

"As a family, we all thought, you know, he's in a safe place, this is where he should be," said Stuart Taylor, Brandon's dad.

I figured if anybody could help her that's where she needed to be to find out.- Michael Maybrey

But Brandon, 29, was in the hospital — the region's specialized mental institution — for just a few days before he took his own life.

The sense of relief that their loved one was at last in a "safe place" at St. Joe's was shared by family and friends of two other people who died by suicide at the hospital's West 5th campus last year.

Now, loved ones of all three have expressed their shock and raised similar questions about the hospital's care as they grieve for:

  • Brandon Taylor, a 29-year-old man engaged to be married and reeling from the loss of his job when he died last August.
  • A 53-year-old woman who was staying with a friend for several months while she tried to get help for her mental health challenges. She died last August.
  • Joel Verge, a 42-year-old man who checked himself in to St. Joe's in late October to get some help for substance abuse and bipolar disorder. He died in November.

Their desire for answers is shared by the hospital, which has called the number of suicides "extremely unusual."

It has launched an internal investigation and has hired outside experts to conduct a comprehensive review of its suicide prevention tools and practices.

The hospital has not released the names of deaths being investigated, but after CBC News initially reported on Verge's death, loved ones of the two others contacted CBC to speak about their cases.

'Why was he able to do this?'

Brandon Taylor and Jenn Smyth had been dating for 10 years and planned to get married in 2017 before Brandon died by suicide last August. (Jenn Smyth)
When Taylor died, he was on a suicide watch. Taylor's fiancée, Jenn Smyth, said he was supposed to be checked on every 15 minutes.

And yet, when she looked through his phone after he died, she found signs he'd been searching for ways to end his life for days, the family said.

"We have a lot of 'whys,'" Stuart Taylor said. "Why was he able to use a cell phone? Why was he able to do this when he was on suicide watch?"

'Mental illness can cause unfathomable pain'

Taylor's family has retained a personal injury lawyer as they navigate the aftermath of his death.

"Although we do not know the full details, the investigation is ongoing and the family will want answers as to why this young man was left with dangerous products in his room ... that he ultimately used to take his own life," said Matt Lalande, the attorney, in a statement to CBC News.

The hospital has been open about its determination to understand what happened and what it might do differently to prevent future incidents.

"Our goal for inpatient care is that there would never be a case in our hospital," said Dr. Ian Preyra, deputy chief of staff for St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, which includes the West 5th campus, in a statement.

"We continue to research best practices and develop new techniques, but mental illness can cause unfathomable pain and the most informed care does not always have a predictable outcome."

'Any suicide is heartbreaking'

"My son leaves behind his fiancée, two brothers, his parents and my mother," Stuart Taylor said. "All of us have been deeply affected."

The details of everything that happened in the days and hours before the three deaths have not been disclosed publicly.

The hospital has hired two independent experts to help it review its handling of cases where suicide is a risk. (Dave Beatty/CBC)

"Any suicide is heartbreaking, right? Not just for the personal tragedy of the person involved, but for the people that are left behind – families and caregivers, friends. And it has a lasting impact," Preyra said in an interview with CBC News.

'I figured if anybody could help her'

Michael Maybrey, 55, was letting a high school friend stay with him for a while last year while she was in a rough spot. She was 53, and had struggled with her mental health without many answers, he said. 

He drove her to appointments, tried to help her find help. But he "wasn't equipped" to deal with the scope of what she needed, he said.

He talked with her for a few months about seeking help at West 5th before she finally checked in last summer.

"I finally convinced her to go," Maybrey said. "I figured if anybody could help her that's where she needed to be to find out."

The next week, he found out she'd killed herself.

Maybrey said he knew his friend had discussed wanting to end her life. But he never expected it to happen while she was in the care of the hospital.

"It shouldn't happen at a state-of-the-art hospital," Maybrey said.

'How can something like this happen?'

The family of a third person who killed himself at West 5th last year, Joel Verge, raises similar questions.

"This is a lockdown facility. These people are deemed a danger to themselves or a danger to others. How can something like this happen?" said the man's father, Carl Verge.

Preyra said the hospital recognizes its role as the go-to place for "the sickest mental health patients in the region."

"Death by suicide is a tragic and shattering loss," he said. "We feel for these families and offer our deepest condolences.

He said the hospital attracts staff that believe in the work they're doing and "care deeply" about the patients.

"They also grieve every loss," he said.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett