New Brunswick report on youth suicide points to shortage of mental health specialists

New Brunswick needs a minister for children and youth, according to a report by the province's youth advocate, which was prompted by the death of a teenager who killed herself after failing to receive mental health care.

Norm Bosse, the province's child and youth advocate, said the memory of 16-year-old Lexi Daken, who took her life in February less than a week after seeking help at a Fredericton hospital, gave power to his report. He said the document, which was released Wednesday, must motivate the people who need to make the necessary changes.

Daken's father, Chris Daken, said he's happy the 108-page report has been dedicated in her memory.

"I've always questioned why Lexi's story has touched so many people and has garnered so much attention," he said in an interview Wednesday. "I've asked why has her story started this chain of events."

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth in Canada, deputy advocate Christian Whalen told reporters in Fredericton after the report was released.

"We know that young people are not connecting with care when they urgently need it," he said. "So how do we actually make our health services work for more young people when they are actively seeking help? How do we help more young people recognize the signs that they may need help?

"We are recommending more specialized mental health services in emergency wards, but within hospital wards as well," he said. "We are calling for better triage assessment tools that recognize the urgency psychiatry patients feel when they present at emerge."

The review found a chronic shortage of psychologists and psychiatrists in the province and a lack of standardized suicide risk assessment in emergency rooms. Whalen said the report also suggested it may be time for the creation of a children's hospital in New Brunswick. The Maritime provinces are served by the IWK Hospital in Halifax.

Other recommendations include the creation of a provincial strategy for child and youth rights and for the development of an action plan for child and youth mental health and suicide prevention. The report does not put a cost on the recommendations, but Whalen said the price of underfunding is lives lost.

Daken said he hopes the creation of a new government minister would result in better integration of services in various departments.

But Patty Borthwick of Utopia, N.B., whose daughter died by suicide last December at the age of 27, said she isn't impressed with the call for a new minister.

"I don't see how having another government-paid civil servant is going to help because we have all kinds now and we're still falling through the cracks and we are still losing young people," she said Wednesday.

Borthwick said hospitals need more staff to deal with patients who have mental health issues.

"The fact that people are talking about it has got to help," Borthwick said. "It's got to help that we're talking about mistakes made or young lives lost. They can't die in vain. I hope this report starts something."

Daken said he hopes the health minister will act on the recommendations and move quickly on improvements to mental health care in New Brunswick.

"Why can't we be the province that makes the changes to mental health care for the betterment of everyone?" he asked. "Why can't we be the province that the rest of the country looks to as a leader in mental health care?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2021.