New Brunswick·Video

Mom 'forced' to have son charged to get him mental health care

Sylvie Messer's son, 28 year-old Shawn Smith, was charged with uttering threats after he said he would kill her and ‘plant’ her.

Sylvie Messer is seeking long-term mental health care for son's schizophrenia

Sylvie Messer explains why she reported her son to the police so he would be charged and put in a hospital 1:33

Sylvie Messer cannot stop crying over criminally charging her son.

After years of temporary in-patient care and seeing him cycle from healthy and kind to psychotic and cruel, she says she was "forced" to ask police to charge her schizophrenic son in order to get him into long-term treatment.

Her son, Shawn Smith, 28, was charged with uttering threats after he said he would kill her and "plant" her.

"A parent should never be forced to charge their child. Nobody understands what that is like until you've been through it. And as a parent, it's the worst thing I've ever had to do," said Messer.

"When he's well, he's a big mama's boy, but when he's not well, he hates me. He threatens me. He's completely different. Almost like Jekyll and Hyde."

Messer, who lives in Fredericton, says about five years ago her son's behaviour started to change, becoming increasingly odd, then more severe as the years went by.

He developed a cycle of health, drug use, crisis and temporary stays in hospitals. He was diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia.

Sylvie Messer's son, Shawn Smith, 28, was charged with uttering threats. (Submitted by Sylvie Messer)
Smith, who lives in the Moncton area, won't or can't admit he has a mental illness. She says he "self-medicates" with drugs, then becomes cruel and delusional.

Messer has used the courts before.

Smith is an adult, so Messer was unable to access any health information about her son. She didn't know when he was in hospital, being released from hospital or what decisions he was making about his treatment.

Messer decided to take the action of obtaining power of committee over her son.

The judge declared him incapable of making his own health-care decisions because of his illness and placed that responsibility on his mother.

She is to be informed by medical and psychiatric staff on all treatment actions. But she says the problem is, she's not.

"He overdosed and I had the police tell the doctor to call me. That's the first thing I said, 'I have power of committee of Shawn's person. He needs to see a psychiatrist. His heart rate is too high.' His heart rate was 150 that night," she said.

Smith, who was a talented self-taught guitar player, doesn't pick one up anymore, says his mother. (Submitted by Sylvie Messer)
"They left him in acute care, he pulled the IV out and he walked right out of the hospital. Walked right out. He'd just tried to commit suicide. He wasn't even in there 12 hours. And he walked right out. He could have went and … and I had no clue he walked out because nobody called from the hospital to tell me."

Recently, Messer had a lawyer remind the hospital that they are legally obliged to inform her.

She thumbs through the photos of a young, happy Shawn. She lingers over the picture of him strumming a guitar. She says he could have a decent life, if there was help.

"They need long-term care. You can send them to a psychiatric unit for 30 days, not a problem. When they come out, they're not being followed. There's no psychologist. No therapy. No ongoing anything," she said.

Charging a child is rare

Stephen Van Slyke, the president of the Fredericton chapter of the Schizophrenia Society of New Brunswick, says he has heard of charging a child to get them treatment, but it's rare.

"This is a tough case. I think that when you're a family member involved in a situation where you can't get care for a loved one, or where your own safety is at risk, it's a huge challenge," said Van Slyke.

"You face it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So I hope in this situation that this family is able to engage with service providers and that a plan can be established, one that is consistent with the family's needs as well as the individual."

Stephen Van Slyke says it can be very difficult to arrange care if the patient themselves does not feel as though they're ill. (CBC)
Van Slyke says there are many different community groups that can help. But when an adult with schizophrenia refuses help, there is little a parent can do.

"One of the large challenges with schizophrenia is that they lack insight. They lack judgement. So as a result, they don't feel that they're ill," he said.

"And as a result, when they're treated as an adult, with a choice, they opt out of treatment, or they don't engage in a way that meets the family's needs."

Without Smith seeking treatment, and without her power of committee enabling her to find the treatment she feels he needs, Messer says she was desperate.

"It was a phone call in February, where he said he would hire someone to kill me, and then he would 'plant me.' My daughter heard him say it, and she said, 'Enough is enough, we're calling the police. Something needs to be done,'" said Messer.

Messer says she knew this was the next step. So she agreed and had him charged with uttering death threats.

"Because there was no way of getting him any help. No way. And I don't want to have to bury him. I don't. I don't want to lose my son," she says.

Smith was remanded to custody and sent for a 30-day psychiatric evaluation at the Restigouche Hospital Centre in Campbellton.

He appeared back in court on Wednesday where he was found not criminally responsible for threatening his mother, due to a mental disorder.

Smith initially didn't want to agree with the psychiatrist's assessment of his mental condition at the time.  

Shawn Smith was sent for additional mental health treatment after being found not criminally responsible for uttering threats, due to a mental disorder. (CBC)
And, he argued, if the psychiatrist now finds him "fit to stand trial," he shouldn't have to go back to Campbellton. He threw an occasional glance at his mother.

"I know it sounds silly, but I didn't know that I was a committing a crime. I never meant to hurt my mother. I was just saying words out of foolishness. I was on my meds," said Smith to Judge Julian Dickson.

"I was just trying to piss her off."

The judge ruled Smith be sent back to the psychiatric facility in Campbellton for treatment.  A review committee there will decide how long the treatment there will last.

Coming out of the courthouse Messer said, "I'm glad he's going back to Campbellton and getting the help he needs, for sure. That  was the whole plan, to get him some help. And he looks better than he did a month  ago."

A tear slid down her cheek.

"It was nice to see him. I just wish I could give him a hug," she says.

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