New Brunswick

Parents of teen who took her own life say Fredericton ER failed her just days earlier

The parents of a 16-year-old who took her own life on Wednesday want changes to the way mental health issues are handled in New Brunswick emergency rooms.

Lexi Daken was a Grade 10 student at Leo Hayes High School

Lexi Daken was a Grade 10 student at Leo Hayes High School in Fredericton. (Submitted by Chris Daken)

Chris Daken said anyone who knew his 16-year-old daughter would say she was the last person they'd expect to take her own life. 

Her outgoing nature and her constant smile masked the pain she was experiencing inside. 

"Every picture has a smile on her face, yet the kid was suffering so badly, and she just hid that with a smile," said her mother, Shawna Betts. 

On Wednesday, the Grade 10 student at Leo Hayes High School in Fredericton died by suicide at her home in Maugerville, outside the city.

Her parents are heartbroken, but they're speaking publicly in the hopes of changing a health-care system they say failed their daughter when she needed help. 

On Feb. 18, Lexi met with a guidance counsellor at school who recognized that she was having mental health issues, said Daken. 

Lexi Daken, shown here in her player card from last season, loved softball. (Submitted by Chris Daken)

The counsellor immediately took Lexi to the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton, where she waited for eight hours to see a mental health professional. 

Lexi told her father that the nurse at the hospital said calling a psychiatrist would take another two hours. 

Betts said the whole interaction made Lexi feel like a "burden." She said Lexi was asked, "Are you really going to make us call them?"

Instead, Lexi left the hospital with a referral. 

But no call came before she took her own life on Wednesday morning.

Betts wants to see changes in the way mental health patients are treated in emergency room. Patients shouldn't be turned away just because their injuries aren't visible, she said.

Daken hopes Lexi's story will help parents recognize the signs of children who are struggling with mental health issues. 

Sometimes they're not easy to see — especially in a person who seems so happy on the outside and has so much going for them, he said. 

Lexi, a perfectionist, began showing subtle signs of depression last summer. (Submitted by Chris Daken)

Daken described his daughter as "a firecracker." She was social, personable, athletic and smart. She was also a hard worker and a perfectionist.

If she had a test, she'd want to get 100 per cent, he said. And if there was a bonus question, she'd want to get more than 100. 

Daken said he started to see subtle signs of depression in Lexi last summer — she was sleeping in, spending more time in her room, showing less enthusiasm for activities, even her beloved softball. 

But a lot of parents see the same things in their teenagers, so, not surprisingly, Daken chalked it up to regular teenager stuff. 

The wake-up call didn't come until this past November, when Lexi took some pills. 

She became frightened, had second thoughts and called 911.

"That was really the first shocking revelation that she had more serious issues than just depression," said Daken. 

She saw a psychiatrist that night and got a referral for a mental health followup. 

Lexi, right, with her sisters, Brennah, left, and Piper. (Submitted by Chris Daken)

Daken said no one ever followed up with them. Instead, they used private counselling paid for by Daken's employee benefits.

"I don't think those were at the level that she obviously needed," he said of the sessions she went to. 

Daken suspects Lexi had probably suffered in silence for years but put on a brave face for everyone around her. 

When she was in Grade 6 or 7, she did a project on depression.  

"I don't know if she considered herself to be depressed then, but I think she was aware of the situation, and doing the project would help her cope with the issues or give her a better understanding of what she may be thinking and feeling," he said.  

Her mom believes the pandemic likely exacerbated the problem. 

Betts said Lexi would spend hours video-chatting with friends, but not being able to get together with them "made her feel more isolated than before." 

Her dad said she seemed fine while she was with people, but in her room at night things got bad. 

Since her suicide attempt in November, he said, family members would reach out to her at those times to see if she was OK. 

Her oldest sibling, 19-year-old Piper, would often text Lexi or Facetime her in the wee hours of the morning, and occasionally pick her up for a late night McDonald's run. 

Lexi, 16, with her sister Piper, 19. (Submitted by Chris Daken)

The family stepped up the vigilance in the last week of Lexi's life, said Daken. Invitations were extended, plans were made, including to go fishing.

In fact, on Tuesday night, Daken took her to Saint John to visit relatives. He said they had a great time, chatting on the way there and back.

He said goodnight to Lexi at about 11 p.m., and she continued to communicate with her friends via cellphone — the last message was sent at about 3 a.m. 

At 3:30 a.m., Daken found Lexi unconscious in her bedroom. He rushed her to the hospital, but her condition continued to worsen throughout the morning. She died at 11 a.m.

The family is waiting to learn what the toxicology report reveals. 

Fighting for change

Daken and Betts have contacted the patient advocate at the hospital and the province's ombud to try to change the way mental health cases are dealt with at hospitals. 

"If the person has actually got up and gone to a hospital during the … pandemic, they obviously think that they need help now," said Betts.

"And so to then just basically let them sit there for eight hours, and then make them feel like a burden, that isn't what we pay our tax dollars for. That is shit service. And that needs to be fixed."

A spokesperson for Horizon Health Network declined to say whether officials are investigating the incident. 

"We take any concerns expressed in relation to patient care extremely seriously. Horizon's patient representatives are always available to discuss any concerns patients may have in order to offer support and guidance," Margaret Melanson, vice-president, quality and patient-centred care, wrote in an email statement. 

Leo Hayes principal Jeff Holder said, "our school experienced a loss that has affected us deeply."

"We are doing everything we can to be responsive to the needs of our students and their families."

Holder said officials from the school and the district will provide counselling and support to students and teachers. 

"Parents have received information from the school on how to work through loss with their children. We know that times like this can be stressful, and in the days ahead we will continue to be available to those who need support."

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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mia Urquhart is a CBC reporter based in Saint John. She can be reached at mia.urquhart@cbc.ca.

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