Horizon examines how suicidal teen was able to leave Fredericton hospital without help
Politicians, including cabinet minister, say New Brunswick mental health system is 'broken'
Horizon Health Network says it is reviewing the care a 16-year-old received at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton last week before she took her own life.
"As with other matters of this nature, Horizon will be reviewing our internal processes to determine where improvements could have been made," Jean Daigle, vice-president community, said in an email sent on Friday.
Shawna Betts said her 16-year-old daughter, who had previously attempted suicide, was taken to the emergency room on Feb. 18 by a school guidance counsellor who was concerned about her mental health.
Lexi Daken, a Grade 10 student at Leo Hayes High School in Fredericton, waited for eight hours without receiving any mental health intervention. She left the hospital with a referral for followup.
Betts said no one ever contacted the family.
On Wednesday morning, Lexi died by suicide.
"Horizon wishes to acknowledge that this situation is nothing short of a tragedy," said Daigle.
"No family should ever have to endure the loss of a child. On behalf of everyone at Horizon, I'd like to offer our deepest condolences to the family as they cope with this unfathomable loss."
He said Horizon provides on-call, emergency psychiatric services 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
So far, no one has commented on the specifics of why Lexi didn't receive any mental health counselling, or why no one followed up with her, but politicians expressed sympathy for the family and impatience with the system.
"It is time to fix this broken system and truly address the needs of all New Brunswickers," Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said Friday.
She said, "those who have experienced a similar tragedy in their lives are retraumatized by these events. Those who have had near-misses are retraumatized as well. Anyone who has taken a loved one to the hospital for help and left feeling hopeless can commiserate with the pain this family is experiencing."
The day before Lexi died, Shephard released details of a five-year plan for increasing access to mental health services. But her department did not respond to questions on Friday about whether anything in her plan would prevent what happened to Lexi.
On Friday morning, all four political party leaders responded to the story on CBC radio.
"As a parent, it's hard to fathom," said Premier Blaine Higgs. "Waiting eight hours is unacceptable. It's heart-wrenching."
Higgs said the problem lies with the system, and not the individuals who work in it.
"We have to fix this," he said. "And it's about priorities. We can't do everything, but let's do what we must."
Liberal Leader Roger Melanson said hospitals are not the right setting to help those in crisis.
He said the province needs another setting for those experiencing mental health issues, "where that's the focus — and that's the only focus."
Green Party Leader David Coon agreed.
He said traditional ERs weren't designed for mental health emergencies.
"Mental health has been treated by government after government after government as the poor cousin in the health-care system," said Coon.
"It's been neglected."
He said the five-year plan unveiled this week contains "some improvements," but those need to be "implemented and fully resourced, fully funded."
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said Lexi's death has shaken his community and the province.
"The whole thing is an absolute disaster," said Austin.
"And if this doesn't shine light on the seriousness of this issue and getting our heads around mental health in this province and allowing for some specialties … because this is heart-wrenching and this can't happen again."
Lexi's parents decided to talk publicly about their daughter's story in hopes of changing the system.
Her father, Chris Daken, said he first noticed changes in Lexi last summer — she was sleeping in, spending more time in her room, showing less enthusiasm for activities, even for her beloved softball.
Daken chalked it up to regular teenager stuff — until she attempted suicide in November.
She ended up at the hospital and was able to see a psychiatrist at that time. She was sent home with a referral for followup by mental health professionals.
Daken said no one ever contacted the family, so they arranged for some counselling through his employee-benefits program.
While Lexi always seemed happy when she was around people, her darkest moments came late at night when she was alone.
Family members tried to keep her busy and reached out to her often.
Her 19-year-old sister, Piper, said she would often send her messages in the middle of the night and would occasionally pick her up for a late-night McDonald's run.
When Lexi left the Chalmers hospital without any help on Feb. 18, family members stepped up their efforts trying to keep her busy.
The night before she died, Daken even took Lexi to Saint John to visit relatives.
Daken and Betts want to see changes in the way mental health patients are treated in emergency rooms. And Daken hopes Lexi's story will help parents recognize the signs of children who are struggling with mental health issues.
Sometimes, said Daken, it's not easy to spot — especially in a person who seems so happy on the outside and has so much going for them, like Lexi did.
Muriel Doucet, a Moncton-based suicide prevention co-ordinator for Horizon Health, said depression isn't always easy to recognize.
"It would present very differently, depending on the person."
She said parents should look for changes in a child's behaviour — anything that deviates from the norm.
"So if they have a tendency to pull away more than usual, maybe something is going on. Or it could be also the person that has a lot of outbursts," she said.
"It's anything beyond the baseline of how the person normally would act."
Doucet said teenagers sometimes don't understand that things will eventually get better.
"So whatever we can do to help the person not feel so isolated and alone with their pain."
Sometimes it's as simple as distraction, said Doucet.
"As soon as we start moving around from being in a zone of not feeling great, it can change the patterns in our brains," she said.
And it's OK if parents don't have all the answers.
"Just being there, listening, allowing them the space to share, to cry if they have to, to yell and scream if they have to. Whatever it is that will help reduce some of the negative types of feelings that they're experiencing is a help to anyone who's kind of struggling."
Doucet said it's important to have conversations about suicide.
"Best practice tells us, and the experts tell us, that the more we talk about it, the more we help people know where to reach out and how to reach out."
Jessica Holly, from the Saint John-based Bridge of Hope group, has organized a candlelight vigil for Lexi on Sunday at 6 p.m. in front of the New Brunswick Legislature in Fredericton.
Holly said she was "heartbroken but not shocked" after hearing Lexi's story.
She explained that Sunday's event will be a drive-by vigil. Those taking part are asked to use their four-way flashers as they drive by.
Holly and others will be standing in front of the legislature to take any flowers, letters, teddy bears, or other items that people want to leave for Lexi.
She said it will be a silent vigil, not a protest.
If you need help:
CHIMO hotline: 1-800-667-5005 / http://www.chimohelpline.ca
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566.
With files from Information Morning Fredericton and Shift