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Parents blame Penticton B.C. teen Chloe Highley's death on lack of mental health treatment options

05/06/2015 12:36 EDT | Updated 05/06/2016 05:59 EDT
The parents of teenager Chloe Highley, who died of a heroin overdose this spring at the age of 18, say the B.C. health system failed their daughter despite their repeated attempts to have her admitted into a mental health treatment program.

The teenager, who grew up in Penticton, B.C., suffered from anxiety. Her mother Tricia says this led to depression.

"She kept looking for a reason why there was something wrong with her," she said. "Like why her brain wasn't working the way other people's brain's were working."

Tricia and Danny Highley tried to get her into counselling, but they said she was too anxious to talk to health professionals and refused.

Her father has worked in B.C. as an addictions counsellor, but said even he couldn't navigate the health system to get his daughter the help she needed, claiming B.C. Children's Hospital cancelled a scheduled intake. The hospital said it doesn't cancel intakes.

Drug problems

Chloe's problems worsened as she was using marijuana, and this winter she met a friend who introduced her to crystal meth, her mother said.

"What Chloe was seeking was community and unfortunately the community that she found didn't have her best interest," Tricia Highley said.

Her parents said Chloe would stay out all night and come home moody and weak, and in March, she had a breakdown at the family home.

"She came undone. She threw a water bottle at me and just went into a rage," her father said. "She started screaming,'I'm going to hurt myself, or someone else.'"

The Highleys called the RCMP, and said officers took Chloe to the psychiatric ward at the Penticton Regional Hospital.

'Dealing with a crisis'

​The Highleys said health officials assigned Chloe a clinician but they weren't satisfied.

"We were dealing with a crisis and there was no crisis response." Tricia Highley said.

The family met with doctors at B.C. Children's Hospital but said they were told the hospital wasn't ready to accept their daughter.

"So I turned to them and I clearly said, 'You guys, this family doesn't have a month or two months,'" Danny Highley said.

On Easter weekend police officers told the Highleys Chloe was using heroin, and they begged the officers to take Chloe to the mental health ward, her mother said.

Initially, health officials agreed to a transfer from the Penticton Regional Hosptial to B.C. Children's Hospital, but then reversed that decision, according to her father.

"And this is the first time I thought my kid might die, because they called and said B.C. children's canceled it. They cancelled the intake because Chloe is not acute enough," he said.  "I got this wave of terror and it felt to me like a death sentence."

Danny said two weeks later B.C. Children's Hospital cancelled a conference call with the family. The next day, Chloe died of a heroin overdose.

"Last stop in the province for youth"

B.C. Children's Hospital wouldn't speak about Chloe Highley's case, citing privacy issues.

Dr. Jana Davidson said the hospital doesn't cancel intakes. She said doctors work closely with families, young people and their care workers in their home communities to create a treatment plan.

"We realize we are the last stop in the province for youth," Davidson said. "So we take that role very seriously."

Davidson said B.C. Children's Hospital has 10 beds available for youth in their mental health treatment program. 

She said last year the average waiting time from pre-consultation with doctors until a youth was admitted to the program was 12 days.

Case not uncommon

The Canadian Mental Health Association says the province lacks programs for youth with mental health and addictions issues.

Mike Gawliuk, director of service delivery and program innovation for the CMHA in Kelowna, said "every day we talk to parents who are struggling with children or youth who need help." 

Gawliuk said the Highley family's case is not uncommon.

"This is a story that plays itself out on a regular basis (in B.C.)," he said.

Gawliuk said the province needs to make a financial investment to keep up with the growing demands of families and young people that are struggling with mental health and addiction issues.

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