POLITICS

Death of mentally ill man led to reform, but advocates fear progress stalled

11/27/2014 02:13 EST | Updated 01/27/2015 05:59 EST
HALIFAX - Seven years after Howard Hyde died following an altercation with jail guards, advocates say reforms have improved the lives of people in Nova Scotia with mental illness but they worry progress has stalled.

Hyde died on Nov. 22, 2007, about 30 hours after he had been arrested by Halifax police and was Tasered several times later outside a cell.

It's been four years since a fatality inquiry by Judge Anne Derrick made 80 recommendations calling for improvements in how the justice and health systems treat people with mental illness.

Andrew Canfield, 26, who has bipolar disorder, says a recommendation from the inquiry for a peer support program has changed his life.

A counsellor who has experienced his illness has helped Canfield improve his social skills, keep a job and resume a university course, he said in an interview.

"It's great that the system has progressed. It's unfortunate it had to come at the expense of a man's life," he added.

"But I still think we need to come a long way."

Derrick found no certain cause of death for Hyde but she said the use of stun guns worsened his rapidly deteriorating mental state.

Her report also described how the 45-year-old former musician who lived with schizophrenia was poorly served by an underfunded system that lacked community supports and relied heavily on drugs and involuntary hospitalization. She made 80 recommendations and said the government had failed to meet its own standards of care for people with mental illness.

There have been steps taken in each area, with the province saying all but two recommendations have either been completed, partially completed or — in the case of training — are still being worked on.

The province's former NDP government brought in a mental health strategy that saw about $5.2-million added to funding in 2012-13 to create community-based programs.

The Health Department also says in an email that 1,442 police, sheriffs, corrections officers, emergency staff, and justice officials have received a course on recognizing signs and symptoms of mental illness.

Meanwhile, a mental health crisis line is available and now receives about 3,500 calls a month, said Patricia Murray, special adviser on mental health and addictions in the Health Department.

Fred Sanford, the Justice Department's director of policing, said a new policy on stun guns emphasizes that non-violent interventions should be tried first.

"A police officer must be in fear of immediate serious injury or death. We've revamped the conducted energy weapon training package and includes a good segment on people with mental illness," he said.

Justice Department statistics show stun guns were drawn but not fired 145 times by police officers in 2013, a 58 per cent increase over 2007, but the number of times the weapons were actually fired has dropped 43 per cent compared to 2007.

Still, mental health advocates say they want more progress on Derrick's call for the creation of a "robust" system of supported housing and care in the community.

Stephen Ayer, the director of the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia, said he's worried that a series of funding increases is slowing down.

"I know some of the programs received money as stated, but ... was that just a one-time thing and we're back to the status quo?" he said.

"My gut feeling is that was a one-time thing and we're back to the status quo."

Murray estimates that spending on mental health programs has gone up to about seven per cent of the health budget — roughly on par with the national average — from about 6.1 per cent of the total budget in 2007.

The additional annual amount of between $7 million and $8 million for programs brought in as a result of the mental health strategy "is not insignificant in these times," she said.

Maureen MacDonald, who was the NDP's health and finance ministers before becoming the party's interim leader, said she had imagined her original bump in funding as the first step in a five-year plan that would have resulted in an increase of more than $20 million by 2017.

Linden Gray, whose 26-year-old son has schizophrenia, said waiting times for treatment and the lack of housing where residents can obtain help from staff and volunteers remain as major concerns.

"Adequate housing is not available. ... People are couch surfing, living in basements, living in shelters," she said in an interview.

Mark Ferdinand, director of public policy at the Canadian Mental Health Association, says Nova Scotia could also consider a new program in Newfoundland and Labrador, where detailed community support plans have been worked out for 25 recently released inmates. The association's website says prisoners are met as they are released and provided with assistance from justice officials in finding housing, food and appropriate care.

Lori Errington, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Services, said the province funds eight housing support workers to help people in shelters find appropriate housing.

Health Minister Leo Glavine was unavailable for an interview, but an email from the department says district health authorities have been ordered not to cut funding to mental health in the provincial budget.

Dan MacRury, the former lead counsel for the fatality inquiry, said Derrick's legacy is better awareness of mental health issues among health and justice officials, decreasing the chance of a similar death.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of Howard Hyde and this inquiry," said MacRury, who is now a provincial court judge.

"I would hope the report has improved the system so it will never happen again."

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