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A celebration of life was held Monday for Lexi Daken, a New Brunswick teenager who died by suicide last week after not receiving mental health care at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital, despite waiting for eight hours.
The night before, a candlelight vigil was held outside the New Brunswick legislature, remembering the 16-year-old Leo Hayes High School student.
Her family chose to speak out, hoping to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
After her passing, Dorothy Shephard, the province’s health minister, blamed a “broken system.”
“It was devastating,” Andrew LeBlanc, the executive director of Atlantic Wellness, said of learning of Daken’s passing.
“I mean those are the kinds of stories that we’re trying to prevent from happening. We’ve heard it before where young people come to us because they couldn’t find support anywhere else.”
Atlantic Wellness is a non-profit organization in Moncton, offering free mental health support to youth ages 12 to 21. LeBlanc says community-based organizations have to be included in addressing mental health supports.
“There’s a huge need for mental health support services,” he said. “Not just youth, but everybody.”
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) of New Brunswick applauds the Daken family for speaking out, breaking down the stigma around suicide.
“I think that in and of itself … It can help more people,” said Christa Baldwin, the local association’s executive director.
Thoughts of suicide, self-harm
Baldwin says prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, about two per cent of the provincial population had suicidal or self-harm thoughts.
But that number is increasing. Baldwin says it’s believed that number grew 10 per cent last fall.
And the CMHA research is ongoing to get more up-to-date information.
“One can surmise that that number will be higher again,” she said.
Baldwin says there’s no data at the moment to suggest the number of people who have attempted suicide is on the rise, but there are important warning signs to watch for.
“If you see a significant shift in mood or personality, you see lack of — or a change of — appetite, sleeping patterns, giving away things that have been meaningful for an individual, talking about death, these are components that you should really stand up and take note of.”
But Baldwin says you don’t need to wait for some of those warnings, and encourages frequent conversation about both mental and physical health.
“In a lot of cases, when you actually ask if someone is suicidal, it’s a relief for that person because they can now talk about it, they can release that energy,” she said.
Staying connected to people, even if it’s virtually, is vital, she says.
Provincial action plan
The news of Daken’s passing came just days after the New Brunswick government unveiled a five-year plan to address mental health and addictions.
Included in the plan is a promise to create 13 walk-in mental health and addictions clinics across the province by October, similar to one that recently opened in Campbellton.
A provincial treatment centre for youth is to open its doors in 2024. A centre was under construction in Campbellton prior to then-health minister Ted Flemming announcing in December 2019 it would move to Moncton.
The province says less than 50 per cent of “high priority cases” are receiving treatment within “national benchmarks,” and that there has been a 16 per cent increase in demand for mental health and addictions services over the last five years.
That’s been amplified as a result of COVID-19.
“The real crux of the services that are needed, that I’ve seen since having the stakeholder engagement and coming to this file, is the response time,” Shephard said.
“That’s why these walk-in clinics are so important. That’s why the mobile mental health crisis units are so important.”
Karla Thorpe, the director of prevention and promotion initiatives of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, says one year into the pandemic is “just a time to be especially on the lookout for people whose mental health may be suffering, people who may be thinking about suicide and just being as vigilant as we can be.”
Thorpe says about 4,000 people die by suicide in Canada per year.
“That trend has been unchanged for the last number of decades. So it’s something we’re quite focused on to see what can we do to improve services, care and access,” she said.
“I think we can do a better job. Certainly, suicide is preventable.”
She says there’s a lag in data from Statistics Canada due to coroners’ reports needing to be finalized before the data can be combined, so there are is no official information from 2020 yet.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
Crisis Services Canada’s toll-free helpline provides 24-7 support at 1-833-456-4566.
CHIMO hotline (New Brunswick): 1-800-667-5005