07/29/2013 18:13 EDT | Updated 09/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Inquest into Winnipeg tragedy could help moms, expert says

The CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada says an inquest into the deaths of two young Winnipeg children and their mother would help Canadians.

Winnipeg police recovered 32-year-old Lisa Gibson’s body from the Red River over the weekend, days after her two young children died after being found clinging to life in a bathtub.

Police later said they were looking at postpartum depression as a factor in their investigation.

Now, Chris Summerville, the CEO of the Schizophrenia Society, is saying an inquest could help Canadians better understand the mental health issues surrounding incidents like this.

Summerville admitted he doesn’t know what determines a call for an inquest, but he would still like to see one done, as the information would be valuable to the public.

"You can't prevent every suicide," he said. "But when a mother is experiencing postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis there needs to be a thorough suicide risk assessment."

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority is now looking into what contact Gibson had with mental health professionals before her death.

According to the Province of Manitoba's website, the chief medical examiner will call an inquest if he or she feels the general public will benefit from the circumstances surrounding someone's death being made public.

Inquests are then generally followed by recommendations from a provincial judge.

Postpartum advocates respond

Women's health workers in Winnipeg said this case highlights the need for greater resources for mothers struggling after giving birth.

"If you are feeling overwhelmed the idea of getting on the bus with your new baby and trying to find a service downtown or somewhere where you've never been before can be very difficult," said Erin Bockstael of the Women's Health Clinic in Winnipeg.

She added social stigma adds to the difficulty. "There is a stigma around mental health, and there is a stigma, I think, when we are having difficulty, that it can be difficult to reach out for help when we feel we want to be successful in this role."

Winnipegger Nicole Gamble has struggled with postpartum depression the past. She said she overcame the stigma of asking for help and tried to find a place she could go to — but was faced with even more adversity.

She said she went to a walk-in clinic, then an appointment with her family doctor. She said she was desperate and asked to see a specialist, "which ended up having to be four to six months after the fact."

"I went in, and I said, 'Listen. I can't wait. I need these services now. I'm really struggling here,'" said Gamble.

Gamble was able to get help shortly after, but Bockstael said many women don't.

Dr. Carrie Lionberg works with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, she said the WRHA is doing its best to keep the public informed about their options.

"We do a lot to raise awareness in our region," she said Monday. But, Lionberg, added, women suffering from more severe postpartum symptoms, such as psychosis, might not seek help “because those symptoms are so scary.”

Bockstael urges any woman experiencing symptoms to contact their public health nurse, family doctor or the mobile crises service in their area.

First responders get counseling

The head of a firefighters union in Winnipeg said the first responders who found Gibson’s children clinging to life in a bathtub are back at work but that doesn’t meant they’ve recovered from the trauma.

Alex Forrest is the head of the United Firefighters of Winnipeg. He said firefighters were among the first responders who pulled the two children, two-year-old Anna and three-month-old Nicholas, from the bathtub in the home.

He said Gibson was not home when emergency personnel arrived.

“The firefighters arrived, were part of the initial responding medical. They had removed at least one of the children out of the bathtub and began working on them, trying to resuscitate them — CPR — and they worked on the children right through to the hospital,” Forrest said.

The children later died.

He said some of those firefighters are receiving counseling as a result of what they saw.

“We know that after every type of incident such as this nature, there will be firefighters that will be needing further care — counseling and such,” said Forrest.

Second vigil planned

Winnipeg mother of three Karla Penner is planning a second vigil for Gibson and her two children.

Penner didn’t know the family but said she has dealt with mental health issues before and was struck by the family’s story.

“As someone that has struggled with depression and anxiety, and [having] people in my life that struggle with mental illness, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to express somehow that I knew that wasn’t who she was,” she said.

Penner is now a student of marriage and family therapy. She has invited people to come and grieve together at a vigil scheduled for Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. near the Alexander Docks on the Red River, where Gibson’s body was found.

She hopes people will light candles and send white flowers down the river.

“This really dark, fast-moving, murky river — putting something that’s a symbol of light like a white flower into the river and let the current take it as a sign of peace and hope for her family,” she said.