Fredericton teen's death a reckoning for the province, mental health advocate says
Legal experts also weigh in with op-ed blaming governments for years of underfunding
The death of 16-year-old Lexi Daken last week set off a searing wave of grief across the province.
But it has also triggered a reckoning, with mental health experts taking a hard look at a worsening mental health crisis and legal experts saying her death was at least partly brought on by years of government underfunding.
Lexi, a Grade 10 student who had previously attempted suicide, was taken to the emergency room at Fredericton's Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital on Thursday, Feb. 18, by a school guidance counsellor who was concerned about her mental health.
She waited for eight hours without receiving any mental health intervention. After she was told by a nurse that calling a psychiatrist would take another two hours, Lexi said later, she left the hospital with a referral for followup.
Less than a week later, Lexi died by suicide.
In an interview with Information Morning Fredericton on Monday, the executive director at the Canadian Mental Health Association of New Brunswick was overcome with emotion while discussing Lexi's death.
'This has to be the piece that moves us forward'
Christa Baldwin noted that last week had started off with the promise of change, with a new mental health action plan, unveiled by Health Minister Dorothy Shephard, "that would allow us to move forward."
"But then later in the week, hearing the news about Lexi — it broke our hearts, to be honest. … I don't think I've ever cried as much as I have in the past week."
But Lexi's death has also been a turning point, Baldwin said.
She noted that Lexi's father, Chris Daken, said in an interview last week that "Lexi's death cannot be in vain."
"This has to be a piece that moves us forward .... we can't have this happening to our youth in our province, we can't have this happening to anyone in our province."
Baldwin said that resonated with her.
"It feels like we have entered a new chapter in this province, building a service that is client-focused, client-centred," she said.
"It has ignited a fire within me and within the CMHA to advocate and use our voice to make change happen. We need something to happen for Lexi's family … and for so many other individuals who have died by suicide in this province."
The new mental health action plan has put some plans and pilot projects in place, Baldwin said.
Those are positive steps, but more needs to be done, she said, noting barriers to service need to be removed and attitudes toward mental health issues need to change.
"I think what bothered me most is after eight hours to ask about whether to call a professional to come in to asses Lexi further — if you went in with a broken leg, you would not be asked if someone should be called in to cast your leg," Baldwin said.
"We need mental health parity. Mental health is a human right equal to physical health."
A violation of Lexi's charter rights, lawyers say
It's a point some legal experts are also making.
In an op-ed, lawyer Jody Carr and University of New Brunswick law professor Kerri Froc said Lexi's rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms were violated.
"Under Section 7 of the charter, 'Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice,' " Carr and Froc wrote in the op-ed.
"Because successive provincial governments have wilfully under-resourced this sector of health care, leading to delays in access to mental health services anchored in the Mental Health Act, violations of New Brunswickers' rights to personal security, and ultimately to life, results.
"While it is true that the direct cause of these deaths and injury is self-harm, the Supreme Court of Canada has said that government is responsible for actions that enhance the risk of these violations."
Carr and Froc argued that "New Brunswick has a duty to ensure that they can talk to a psychiatrist or psychologist at their and their family's time of greatest need."
In an email Monday, Horizon Health Network, the regional authority that operates the Chalmers Hospital, noted that it does provide around-the-clock psychiatric services at its hospitals.
"Horizon provides emergency psychiatric services 24 hours per day, seven days a week at our regional hospitals," Dr. Edouard Hendriks, vice-president of medical, academic and research affairs at Horizon.
"Medical psychiatry staff are available for consultation as required, in collaboration with the on-site care team."
Nevertheless, some questions remain unanswered.
Horizon did not immediately answer questions about whether it is tracking how often an on-call psychiatrist is called to come in to see a patient, or how often they decline or are unable to do so.
It also did not answer questions about why Lexi was told she would face a two-hour wait for a psychiatrist, citing "confidentiality reasons."
Pandemic taking deepening toll on mental health
Meanwhile, the pandemic's toll on the mental health of almost every demographic in the province continues to deepen, Baldwin said.
In the 2019-20 fiscal year, the Canadian Mental Health Association worked with more than 86,000 New Brunswickers, she said.
"In the first three-quarters of this fiscal year, we were already at over 117,000 New Brunswickers. … Organizations are feeling that, hospitals are feeling that, Horizon and Vitalité are feeling that. We need to recognize what's happening here in terms of demand for service."
Carefully developing programs and reaching out to certain demographics to make sure people are not falling through the cracks are more crucial now than ever, she said.
But so is talking "openly" with people when you see they are struggling, even if it feels uncomfortable.
"Asking someone if they're suicidal, having suicidal thoughts ... actually saying those words can help," Baldwin said. "We need to have these conversations, we can't sweep it under the rug. Not talking about mental health openly has done us no favours."
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.