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The suicide of a bullied 16-year-old Winnipeg boy whose family tried repeatedly to get help has prompted Manitoba’s advocate for children and youth to call for the province to establish a long-term youth treatment centre and appoint case managers to help families navigate the mental health system.
Eight recommendations aimed at improving youth mental health care in Manitoba were released Thursday, along with the results of the advocate’s investigation into the Nov. 10, 2017, death of a teen identified only as Matthew.
Matthew was nine days away from his 17th birthday when he killed himself at home, after years of being bullied, struggling in school, expressing suicidal thoughts and attending counselling.
"Matthew's manner of death is far too common in Manitoba, even though we don't talk about it enough," youth advocate Daphne Penrose told a news conference Thursday morning.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for Manitoba children aged 10 to 17, and has been for the past five years, according to data compiled by the advocate's office.
Penrose called for the provincial government to publicly release its plan to reform youth mental health care and addictions treatment, and explain how it will act on changes previously recommended in the 2018 Virgo report.
Advocate's recommendationsClick to Expand
• Promote mental health in all K-12 classrooms
• Stop suspending, expelling when safety not an issue
• Create, promote safe, caring schools
• Improve access points for children, youth experiencing mental health crisis
• Create mental health system "navigators" to help children, youth
• Long-term residential mental health treatment for youth
• Transparent framework for child, youth mental health and addictions health system transformation
• Proclaim outstanding sections of Advocate for Children and Youth Act in spring 2020
— source: Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth report: The Slow Disappearance of Matthew
"Releasing the strategy publicly would allow service providers to understand the services that are available, or are going to be, in the direction that we're moving in," she said.
The provincial government didn't commit to implementing any of the advocate's recommendations.
Health Minister Cameron Friesen's office declined an interview request. Instead, it sent a statement that didn't address any of the specific recommendations in the report, but did include a list of government funding investments.
"The death of a child is always tragic and heartbreaking. We offer our sympathies to Matthew’s friends and family and to other families dealing with the loss of a child. We know there is more to do to help support children and youth dealing with mental health issues. That’s why we’ve adopted a whole-of-government approach to responding to recommendations from the Manitoba advocate for children and youth," the statement said in part.
Currently, the lack of resources in Manitoba's mental health system is "staggering," Penrose said, emphasizing the lack of follow-up care.
The investigation into Matthew's death occurred because a Child and Family Services support worker got involved with the family in the year before he died, triggering the advocate’s examination of the factors that led to his suicide.
CFS was the only agency still working with Matthew in his last year of life, even though his family had tried to get him help at school, in hospital, with counsellors, Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, and other professionals, even the police. He had been diagnosed with anxiety and depression at 14, and he left school in Grade 11, after years of bullying.
Prior to his death, he was unable to leave his house due to mental illnesses and was deemed a "resistant" patient.
The existing mental health system didn't recognize his symptoms as a cry for help, Penrose said.
"When Matthew's plan wasn't working, nobody sat back to say, 'What's wrong with the plan?' What happened was, he became the problem... He wasn't unwilling. He wasn't resistant. He was ill, and nothing that they were doing was working for him on an outpatient basis," she said.
"While he was in inpatient (care), he was able to be safe and make some progress, but when he was discharged, he ended up becoming overwhelmed."
The recommendation to appoint caseworker "navigators" to help families find available mental health services follows similar work underway in Ontario.
As for a long-term residential treatment centre, the advocate was vague about what such a centre should look like.
The report echoed previous recommendations that disciplinary school suspensions and expulsions should be scrapped unless they're for safety reasons. It also called for schools in Manitoba to develop improved mental health programs.
"There is no unified approach right now and, unfortunately, one of the results of that patchwork approach is that suicide is now the leading cause of death for children age 10 to 17 in this province." – Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew
Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew called on the Tory government to adopt all of the advocate's recommendations and establish a suicide-prevention strategy.
"There is no unified approach right now and, unfortunately, one of the results of that patchwork approach is that suicide is now the leading cause of death for children age 10 to 17 in this province," Kinew said.
"This is really a cry for help, and a warning signal that we should have a specific suicide-prevention strategy in this province, as well."
Liberal MLA Jon Gerrard echoed that call, saying investing in mental health care "saves huge amounts of dollars down the road."
Matthew's story is a "searing" indictment of Manitoba's mental health system, he said.
"It exposes the current system as a patchwork, fragmented, poorly integrated, poorly co-ordinated system which is failing children, failing youth, and I should add from my experience, failing adults, as well."
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.