A son’s battle, a family’s fight: Parents grieving son they say was lost in mental health-care system — (The Regina Leader-Post)

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The Regina Leader-Post

by Pamela Cowan, Regina Leader-Post

At first glance, a large single black and blue rose tattooed on Wanda Ball’s left leg resembles a bruise.

Indeed, the skin art paints a picture of the grieving mother’s emotional pain. But it’s also a public declaration of her love for the 16-year-old son she lost to suicide last month.

Days have passed since Wanda got the tattoo, but she continues to feel the needle’s sting.

The tattoo features Kye’s signature, the dates of his birth and death and a gold heart-shaped lock and key symbolizing her son’s secretiveness about his mental illness.

“He tried to hold so much in,” Wanda says. 

The physical pain will diminish in time, but the loss of Kye will never leave her or her family. Everywhere there are daily reminders.

When Wanda hears Tim McGraw’s Humble and Kind on the radio or she sees a teenage boy in a bunny hug, she instantly returns to her darkest day.

“No parent should have to bury their child,” Wanda says crying. “No child should have to suffer in a system that is broken. No child should feel so let down that death is the best alternative.”

The country song was played at Kye’s funeral because it evokes Wanda’s memories of her beloved son. 

“Through all of Kye’s pain and suffering, he remained loving and respectful towards his family,” she says. “He was a good, kind young man that fought a battle within himself, but never projected that onto others.” 

Chris, Wanda’s husband and Kye’s dad, is dreading the firsts — particularly the opening days of fishing and deer hunting season because his sidekick won’t be with him.

The couple’s shared grief is fresh. Kye died by his own hand on March 20. Despite their anguish, the couple is determined to prevent another family from experiencing their heartbreak and horror.

Three years of fighting demons

Kye’s struggle with mental illness began at 13 when he started cutting his arms.

He hid the gashes from his family under thick sweaters and long-sleeved shirts, but eventually staff at his school noticed and a social worker got Kye into counselling once a week.

But counselling didn’t stop the cutting.

“It was his way of releasing his stress and his pain,” Wanda says.

Commuting to Regina for work from her Indian Head home, she was on edge every time her cellphone rang.

“I was waiting for the next day’s trauma — because there would be something pretty much every day,” she says.

One of many calls from the school came after Kye told a school friend he planned to kill himself.

“We picked him up and took him to the General Hospital and sat in the ER for nine hours with a 14-year-old boy who wanted to hurt himself,” Wanda says. “It was very frustrating. At many points, he just wanted to leave, but we couldn’t take him until he got the help he needed.”

After finally getting into a room, the family waited another three hours for a psychiatrist to see Kye.

The teen was admitted to the adolescent psychiatric unit for nine days and treated for depression. Group and personal therapy focused on helping Kye learn about alternate ways to deal with his pain and, at times, included his parents.

Kye seemed to improve. But within days of returning home, he started cutting again. He was given anti-depressants and saw a Regina psychiatrist once a month and a psychologist weekly.

“We didn’t know how to help him,” Wanda says. “We were under the impression that this medication would help.”

The parents are thankful for the ongoing support they got from the school. Staff were frequently on the phone calling an ambulance for Kye.

“One day in particular that stands out in my mind is he had a really heavy bunny hug sweater on that was black,” Wanda says. “He was really groggy in school and they were concerned about him, so they pulled him out of class and he had blood dripping down from his heavy sweater — it was just saturated because he had cut so deep.”

Kye stayed at the Indian Head hospital for three days and was released when he convinced staff he had no plans to harm himself.

But more ambulance trips from Indian Head to Regina followed, all at a great cost to the family — emotionally and financially.

At least once, the family was sent home after Kye saw the doctor because there were no beds, Wanda says.

On three occasions, Kye cut the underside and top of his arms, his stomach and his legs so deeply he needed stitches, 40 were required once.

“He started using marijuana, which he believed helped with the pain he was feeling and at times did not take his prescribed medication,” Wanda says.

At their wits end, the Balls sent their 15-year-old son for drug rehabilitation at Calder Place in Saskatoon for a 21-day stay. But the help he received wasn’t enough.

Kye’s last emergency trip to Regina was in November after he’d cut both arms. He required stitches and treatment for blisters on his skin where he’d burned himself.

Afraid they would be sent home, Wanda appealed to family members to join them at the hospital. About a dozen answered her call and waited in the hallway for two hours before Kye got into a room.

The teen reassured the psychiatrist he was OK. The physician took him at his word and was going to adjust his medication and send him home.

That decision enraged Wanda — who didn’t believe her son was mentally stable — and she stormed out of the hospital. The doctor called her cellphone 15 minutes later and told her he’d admit Kye.

The teen spent the next three weeks on the adolescent psychiatric unit. Most of the time, in his room filling out worksheets.

“He was secluded,” Wanda says. “He got more depressed and more upset.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, Kye was taken off anti-depressants and given other medication, which he hated because it made him groggy.

Tensions at home escalated when Kye intentionally tried to overdose on his prescription medicine.

A day later, his 13-year-old sister, Kadince, found an eight-inch butcher knife in the bathtub — the next weapon in his arsenal to end his life.

“Over the past few years, we have found blades, knives and lighters Kye would use for self harm in his room and the shared bathroom,” Wanda says. “We have also found blood-soaked tissue and bandages.”

With Kye’s frequent suicide attempts, the couple feared Kadince would find her brother dead.

“We decided he needed to go into rehab for his marijuana use or he wasn’t coming home,” Wanda says.

They gave their son an ultimatum — either go back to rehab or they’d involve Social Services.

Kye refused rehab, so he went to the Street Culture Project and stayed for more than 90 days.

It was a month before he got his first “weekly” visit from his case worker, Wanda says bitterly.

“Throughout this time, I argued and tried to get this kid into some kind of home that could give him the time and counselling that he needed,” she says. “We couldn’t keep him safe.”

Following his stint with Street Culture, the 16-year-old returned home at the end of February.

“From this time to the time of his death, Kye did not see a counsellor except for the one at the high school,” Wanda says.

On March 16, Kye threatened suicide. A friend told a teacher and the police got involved. An RCMP officer called Wanda in Regina and told her Kye was at the detachment and wasn’t doing well.

“I told the officer that she needed to take Kye to the hospital in Indian Head,” Wanda said. “The constable insisted that he didn’t need to go to the hospital, that he just needed his medication and she sent this child home.”

The end was nearing.

On March 20, the school counsellor called Wanda to alert her Kye was “having another bad day.”

Wanda left work and was waiting to pick up her husband when she received a text to come to the school as soon as possible. She texted back saying she was still in Regina and to call her on her cellphone.

“An RCMP officer called my cell and told me over the phone my son was dead — that he took his life,” Wanda says. “I was sitting in my car alone.”

She drove across Regina to give Chris the horrific news.

The distraught parents made the 40-minute drive to Indian Head where their home was surrounded by police vehicles.

Again Kye had told his friends he was going to kill himself so the police were called. Six of Kye’s friends and the RCMP got to the house at the same time.

Kye’s buddies pushed the police aside and rushed up the stairs, opening the door to Kye’s bedroom just as he shot himself in the head with a .303-calibre rifle.

The aftermath

Sadness pervades the family home where Kye’s presence is felt everywhere.

“He was a very understanding, very loving kid,” Chris says. “Of course there was the mental illness, but he covered that up well. A lot of his friends didn’t even know he had it until really recently.

“Having conversations with the kids he hung out with, he was very loyal to us. He never had anything bad to say about us to his friends and they were very supportive of him. If there was a problem, they would let us know.”

A small brown teddy bear is tucked among blue and white silk roses that encircle Kye’s urn displayed in the living room. He got the bear as a small boy and kept it in a drawer in his bedroom. Sometimes, he brought it out for comfort.

Almost a month after his violent death, the smell of disinfectant used to clean Kye’s bedroom lingers.

The room is nearly empty except for a bed frame and a moose antler that a five-year-old Kye dragged home after a trip into the bush with his dad. Three collages made for the funeral give glimpses of a happy childhood.

An avid Toronto Maple Leafs fan, a team flag hangs prominently on Kye’s bedroom wall. His Indian Head Broncs football jersey lies on the floor.

The family’s three dogs and cat are still jittery — unsure about what happened or why their boy is no longer with them.

Continuing the fight — for others

Wanda and Chris asked Todd Rennebohm, a passionate mental health advocate, to help them organize a May 5 rally in Regina to raise awareness about the lack of mental health supports.

“We realize it’s not going to bring our son back, but we don’t want this to happen to another family,” Chris says.

Mental health is “the forgotten part of the health-care system,” he adds.

The Balls, their family and friends hope mental health groups will join them as they carry posters with Kye’s picture and the words, ‘Why didn’t I matter?’

“I don’t want anyone’s friends to go through what Kye’s friends went through,” Wanda says. “We live, not only with the guilt of not being able to help Kye, but that the kids that were there are suffering too.”

Mental health care is sorely lacking — particularly in rural Saskatchewan, small towns and First Nations communities, she says.

The Balls want a team of mental health workers, including a psychiatrist, psychiatric nurse and psychologist, to work with other stakeholders and focus on prevention instead of crisis intervention.

Wanda is particularly upset her pleas for help from Kye’s case worker went unanswered.

“All I got was, ‘I have a heavy caseload. I have a lot of kids in my care,’ ” Wanda says tearfully.

It takes strength to ask for help, but when supports aren’t in place, there can be deadly consequences.

“Suicide attempts need to be treated more seriously and not just considered a cry for attention,” Wanda says.

She’s advocating for quicker responses and more beds on the adolescent psychiatric unit to ensure children are not sent home without the care they need.

“Youth need more than just medication,” Wanda says. “Youth need to be able to meet with the psychologist immediately — not put on a waiting list.”

The community of Indian Head was extremely supportive, but not the health-care system, Chris says.

“We’ve had so many fights with them trying to get Kye the proper help,” Chris says. “Once he was on the psych ward he was somewhat OK, but trying to get him in there was just unreal.

“We had him in Regina for stitches and the doctors in the ER told us he was no threat to himself. But if he needed stitches in his arms, he was a threat to himself.”

Sitting beside Chris at the kitchen table, Wanda shakes her head.

“Our health-care system, mental health care, the RCMP, Social Services — we all failed Kye,” she says. “I shouldn’t have to yell at a doctor to keep my kid safe.”

Suicides in Saskatchewan

2013 — 141 — 42 females, 99 males

2014 – 142 — 40 females, 102 males

2015 – 171 — 33 females, 138 males

2016 – 135 — 38 females, 97 males

(Note: Data from 2015 and 2016 is preliminary — not all death investigations have been included.)

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, there were 70 self-injury hospitalizations per 100,000 Saskatchewan residents in 2014-15. The national average was 65 self-injury hospitalizations per 100,000 people.

* Source: Office of the Chief Coroner, Saskatchewan as of Feb. 3, 2017

Mental health supports expanding, but more to be done: Health minister

Hearing about Kye Ball’s tragic death hit Health Minister Jim Reiter hard — professionally and personally.

“It breaks my heart,” Reiter said. “That’s just incredibly sad. I can’t imagine what that family is going through.”

The high number of suicides in Saskatchewan also troubles him.

“There’s probably almost no one who hasn’t been touched by this in some way,” Reiter said. “I’ve lost a nephew to suicide in the past and it’s incredibly difficult.”

He said the government must do its best to ensure adequate resources.

Reiter pointed to a number of different mental health initiatives underway in the province that include the Police and Crisis Team (PACT) in Regina and Saskatoon — a partnership that pairs a mental health professional with a police officer to provide a joint response to people experiencing a mental health crisis.

He’s hopeful the new targeted funding for home care and mental health the province and feds agreed to as part of the new 10-year health accord in January will allow the provincial government to put more resources towards services.

Reiter vowed mental health issues will be top of mind for him in ongoing discussions with the federal government.

Responding to the Ball family’s concerns that the ministries of health and social services in particular failed Kye, Reiter noted a number of programs where the Ministry of Health works with other ministries such as Justice.

“More can always be done,” Reiter said. “With regard to the tragedy in La Loche, health and education have been doing a lot of work together that wasn’t probably being done in the past.

“I think there are a number of examples of where that’s being done. Do I think we can do better? Yeah, I do. I think that’s going to need to be a focus moving forward.”

Tobie Eberhardt, executive director with Child and Family Programs at the Ministry of Social Services, couldn’t speak to the Ball case specifically, but said the ministry works closely with its community partners and other ministries.

Social Services provides support and services to 16 and 17-year-old youths when the young person cannot live with his family for safety reasons or no parent is willing or able to take responsibility for the young person.

“We’d put in supports — counselling, mediation and if we’re not able to be successful in that — if it’s not safe for the youth or the youth and their family aren’t able to come to some kind of agreement, we would then look at residential options for that youth,” Eberhardt said.

A case plan is developed based on the youth’s needs.

Because it’s a voluntary program, Social Services enters into an agreement with the youth “about what the services will be, what their case plan will be and what supports they might need, which would be where they would be residing,” Eberhardt said.

Services range from youths living in an approved room and board situation, peer homes or independent living.

Contact with a case worker is dependent on the needs of the youth.

Crisis response and mental health and addiction services have always been available in the rural area of the Regina Qu’Appelle Health Region (RQHR), said Fiona O’Connor, director of the region’s mental health clinic.

The Community Outreach and Support Team (COAST) is a crisis team that responds to a variety of calls, including mental health and addictions, which is staffed around the clock.

Social workers, registered psychiatric nurses and a couple of psychiatrists are on the COAST team. Although based in Regina, the team answers calls from rural areas.

Following the tragedy in Indian Head, she said the region is providing more community supports and additional training for staff is underway.

Rural Mental Health is contacting youths in the community to offer services and extra mental health clinics are being held at Indian Head Union Hospital for any youths or families who wish to attend.  Additionally, clinics have been offered at the local high school since Monday.

The region has already started or, in some cases, completed developing connections between local practitioners and psychiatrists and sharing best practice literature around suicide and youth mental health treatment and stabilization with them.

Rural Primary Health Care Services are working with mental health services to co-ordinate Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training training for rural acute care staff and Mental Health First Aid for the primary health care team and community partners, O’Connor noted.

Mental health standards for acute care will be reviewed with the local team to determine the types of patients with a mental health diagnosis who can safely be managed in a rural acute care site.

Back in Regina, Dr. Oladipupo Akeju, acting department head of psychiatry with the RQHR, admitted mental health patients can face long waits in the emergency room.

Part of the problem is that patients’ physical health must be evaluated to determine if they’ve ingested any harmful substances before the psychiatrist is called in, he said.

How long patients wait also depends on how busy the psychiatrists are and the time of day.

During the day, a psychiatric nurse assesses patients and gathers information.

Currently, five child and 20 adult psychiatrists provide mental health services.

“We’re trying to recruit more — especially the child and adolescent psychiatrists,”Akeju said.

There are 10 beds on the adolescent psychiatric unit.

“Because there is a lot of pressure on those beds, there’s enough room there to add an additional three,” Akeju said. “The reason it’s just 10 is because of a staffing quota that they have. If they open it to 13, then they have to get additional staff.

“That happens fairly frequently … 30 per cent of the year, the unit is at overcapacity.”

Anyone who has harmed themselves or taken an overdose of medication should call 9-1-1. Those experiencing suicidal thoughts can call 306-525-5333 (Mobile Crisis Services Regina), 306-933-6200 (Saskatoon Crisis Intervention Service) or toll-free 1-800-667-4442 (rural).