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N.W.T.'s mental health care system failed our son, say grieving parents

04/29/2015 07:49 EDT | Updated 08/04/2015 10:59 EDT
The family of a Yellowknife man who died of self-inflicted injuries says the territory's health care system should have done more to help him.

Timothy Henderson, 19, died Sunday after being taken off life-support after sustaining self-inflicted injuries.

His parents don't believe Timothy meant to take his own life. They say it was a cry for help gone wrong, and that they've been told by health care professionals that Timothy used self-harm as a stress relief.

Since the beginning of this year, Timothy's self-harm activities escalated, and he checked himself in to psychiatric wards in both Edmonton and Yellowknife, as he believed he was a risk to himself. His parents say he was always released within a few days, without a long-term care plan put in place or follow-up appointments made.

"Timothy was continually dismissed and invalidated," his father, Ian Henderson told CBC News on Monday.

"How often does a child have to reach out? How often do they expect that they will be dismissed before someone begins to take notice? How do we stop the body count?" 

'Frustrated with the lack of resources'

Timothy Henderson struggled with symptoms of Aspergers and ADHD. 

"He was such an unique, intelligent, brilliant young fellow who as a very, very young child had different struggles in life but continually overcame them," said his mother, Connie Boraski.

She says the system began failing Timothy when he turned 17, and he no longer qualified for pediatric care.

"Timothy became frustrated with the lack of resources and validation by his mental health practitioners. He developed deep depression and severe mood swings," said Boraski.

"Timothy began to lose hope that the help he was seeking would ever be available."

She says Timothy gave up on the health care system earlier this month. He had checked himself into Stanton Territorial Hospital, saying he had suicidal thoughts. He tried to take his own life while at the hospital. Doctors released him two days later.

Doctors can involuntarily hospitalize patients at risk of harming themselves for up to 48 hours under the N.W.T.'s Mental Health Act.

'Absolutely nothing'

James Boraski, Timothy Henderson's stepfather, said Timothy was discharged with "no plans for a follow-up consult or a meeting or a scheduled appointment with his psychiatrist that he'd been seeing.

"Absolutely nothing." 

This is not the first time mental health services in the Northwest Territories have been criticized. In 2009, Julian Tologanak was taken by RCMP to Stanton Territorial Hospital after threatening to take his own life. After a psychiatric assessment, he was released the next morning and he boarded a plane back to his home community of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and jumped out while in flight.

A coroner's inquest jury in that case called on the Northwest Territories and Nunavut governments to review their mental health legislation and focus more on patient care. 

In 2013, N.W.T. Chief Coroner Cathy Menard called on the Stanton Territorial Health Authority to better track patients who attend the emergency room on a recurring basis for suicide-related issues. It was one of several recommendations stemming from the inquest into the shooting death of Karen Lander in Yellowknife in 2012.

Lander barricaded herself in her friend's home with multiple firearms and threatened to take her own life. She charged at police and was shot and killed.

Not just a northern problem

CBC News asked the N.W.T. Department of Health and Social Services for general information on what sort of plans are put in place when suicidal patients are discharged from the psychiatric ward. The department has yet to respond.

Mental health professional Dr. Chris Summerville says a lack of mental health care isn't just a northern problem.

"All over Canada, regional health authorities struggle with having enough resources and capacity," he says. "We'll never be able to prevent every suicide, but there should be contingency emergency measures put in place. They shouldn't merely be released from hospital. There should have been future mental health appointments made."

Timothy's family says they are grateful to the medical team at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, who cared for their son while he was on life support.

"The incredible care and professionalism and knowledge that has been extended to us this last week has been simply overwhelming," said Ian. "But it's just so unfortunate that these resources were not available to Timothy." 

A funeral service for Timothy Henderson will be held on Saturday, May 2 at 2:30 p.m. at the DND Gym in Yellowknife.

The NWT Helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week toll-free at 1-800-661-0844. In an emergency, contact your local health centre, or the RCMP.

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