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St. Catharines Standard
By Grant LaFleche, The Standard
Thursday, May 3, 2012 8:12:15 EDT AM
Michelle McIntyre holds a recent photo of her son, David McIntyre, who took his own life. Bob Tymczyszyn
CATHARINES – David McIntyre’s mind was bent upon his own death. Thoughts of suicide were a constant companion. But he wanted to be rid of them. Desperately.
The teenager’s mother lived in a perpetual fear those thoughts would become reality. Each new day brought with it a renewed risk.
“I could not help but wonder, ‘Is today the day he is going to do it?’ I was constantly worried about it,” Michelle says.
On April 24, in the stylish Smithville home he shared with his mother, David took his own life. The 15-year-old and his parents had tried for months to get him the help he needed. They tried to access the children’s mental health system in Niagara. They looked to his high school for support.
Instead, Michelle says their son was left to languish on waiting lists and was suspended from school.
“He did fall through the cracks. The system failed him,” Michelle says, touching a dog tag around her neck. Stamped with the logo of his cheerleading squad, one of the boy’s few bright lights, David wore it every day.
“I don’t want revenge. I don’t want to point fingers. All I want is for things to change.”
On the surface, David’s life might have appeared normal. Lantern-jawed and handsome, he was well liked. He was smart. Kind. Had a supportive family.
But what boiled beneath the surface would eventually upend the lives of those left behind who struggle for answers.
In July, David came to his mother with a confession. The kind that will leave any parent cold.
“He told me he couldn’t stop thinking about killing himself,” Michelle says. “He knew something was wrong and wanted help. I am fortunate that my son came forward and spoke to me. I know that most people don’t.”
Michelle made a doctor’s appointment for David. It wasn’t long before they were instructed to call Contact Niagara, the gateway organization for mental health services in the region.
After a short screening interview by phone, they were directed to Pathstone Mental Health, Niagara’s only mental health organization for children and youth.
“Shortly after, we got a letter saying that there was a backlog of cases and we would hear from them when something was freed up,” she says.
Months would pass, Michelle says, without word from Pathstone.
Bill Helmeczi, the organization’s director of mental health services, declined to talk about the specifics of David’s case.
The length of a wait time, he says, depends on the kind of service required. “If it is something brief, a response comes pretty quick, and if it is a crisis situation, the response is immediate,” says Helmeczi. “If it is a long-term situation, the wait can be as long as six months.”
For example, Helmeczi says there are few mental health beds in Niagara for children or youth. If one is required, the wait for one to become open is lengthy.
Jill Dennison of the local chapter of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario says organizations charged with helping those with mental health problems do the best they can, but are often faced with a situation where resources are drastically outstripped by demand.
“Delays and wait times are inevitable,” says Dennison. “It is not the case that there are not organizations or people willing and trying to help. There are and they do a good job. There are just not enough resources.”
Part of the issue, Michelle McIntyre believes, is attitude. Mental health doesn’t get the same attention, or funding, as physical health.
“We know that if children don’t eat properly, they cannot function properly at school. So there are breakfast and lunch programs,” Michelle says. “We need to have the same kind of understanding for mental health.”
At Pathstone, there has been some good news on the resource front at least. Recent funding injections have allowed Pathstone to hire more staff to streamline and speed up the assessment process, Helmeczi says.
Michelle McIntyre says she did not hear at all from Pathstone until February, when she made several insistent phone calls.
“They apologized for the delay and we saw someone in a couple of weeks,” she says.
Between July and February, however, David’s world was darkening. Michelle says it was increasingly difficult to get David engaged in anything other than cheerleading, the one activity that seemed to bring him joy.
“I would lay awake at night wondering if David was asleep,” she says. “He could not turn his mind off. It was always buzzing and he was unable to sleep, which wasn’t helping him.”
David was prone to anxiety attacks, which his mother says sometimes fuelled frustrated outbursts at Blessed Trinity Catholic School in Grimsby, which led to more than one suspension.
“When he was alone, he would smoke marijuana because he thought that would calm his anxiety, but it didn’t help him. I think it might have made it worse,” Michelle says.
He also made attempts on his life. The first few failed and did not result in any serious injury. But in March, David upped the ante.
When left alone for extended periods, David smoke marijuana in a bid to rein in his anxiety. His mother said all it did was make him more impulsive, a state of being that was a poor match for his suicidal thoughts.
Fuelled by pot, David tried to overdose on another drug on the first day of March break. He was hospitalized at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton. There, Michelle says, she and her ex-husband Kevin McIntyre insisted the teen be admitted and assessed even after he was out of immediate danger.
She says they were told two key things about their son’s condition: First, David likely had a personality disorder, but such a diagnosis is difficult to make before the age of 18. And second, although his outbursts at school may be disruptive, he should not be removed from the school setting. Leaving him alone could lead to more drug use and impulsive behaviour.
“They said he had chronic suicidal thoughts,” Michelle says.
After he was released, David had appointments with Hamilton mental health specialists at McMaster Hospital, but because the McIntyres are Niagara residents, the visits were spotty.
They also received some help from a Smithville medical clinic, she says, and the Catholic school board’s own staff psychiatrist — whose primary job is to assess and refer students with mental health issues rather than take patients — took a personal interest in David’s case, going as far as to visit the teen at his home.
“But he has an entire school board of students to consider, elementary and high school,” Michelle says. “So he could not see David all the time.”
There was another assessment through Pathstone — this time a 20-minute interview with a psychiatrist in April. Michelle says she was told David had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a diagnosis that immediately struck Michelle as wrong. It might explain some of David’s behaviour, but how did it address his constant suicidal thoughts or his suicide attempts?
“I called them and said I didn’t think this was right. They told me to just give it some time,” she says. “He took the medications, but they made him feel worse.”
His behaviour at school didn’t improve either. Michelle says she and her ex-husband signed waivers to have his medical information from McMaster shared with the school. Hospitals, including McMaster and St. Joseph’s, will share some patient information with other institutions, such as schools, with the consent of the patient or their guardians in the case of minors. However, they are largely prohibited by privacy regulations to disclose patient information to the press.
In April, David was suspended again, something his mother says she insisted not happen given what the Hamilton doctors had said. Blessed Trinity decided to move him immediately to the “Fresh Start” program — a program that works to resolve a student’s issues and reintegrate them into the school environment.
Unfortunately, the program was a poor fit for David. Michelle says he suffered such a serious bout of anxiety, he had to leave.
There wasn’t time to find another solution.
Niagara Catholic District School Board director of education John Crocco would not discuss David’s case, although he did say that school and board officials have been in contact with David’s family.
Crocco did detail programs and initiatives the school board has to help students with mental health issues, including having a board-wide mental health policy that is regularly updated to reflect best practices. Students can be connected to counsellors and chaplains with specialized training, and the schools work closely with families and the appropriate health care professionals to help a student, Crocco says.
“We want our students to feel comfortable talking to any member of the staff, a teacher, an administrator, even a custodian, if they are having difficulty,” says Crocco, who noted that some board staff have taken “mental health first aid,” training similar to what is used by front-line emergency workers. That training, he said, is being extended to more staff this year.
Like many schools in Niagara, Catholic schools host special speakers through the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health who talk to students about issues surrounding mental health and suicide.
Still out of school, with another meeting with Pathstone still two weeks away, David killed himself in his own home.
Michelle says the community has rallied around her family. More than 500 people attended David’s funeral, including the entire Blessed Trinity cheerleading squad.
David tried to get help. His parents advocated for him at every turn, grasping for help wherever they could find it. But Michelle feels the mental health system failed her son.
Since his death, Michelle hasn’t lashed out at those she feels failed her son. Instead, she wants to change the system. She does not want another parent to suffer what she has suffered.
In the midst of her crushing grief, Michelle has made her resolve clear.
“It has been one week today since you left us and my pain is almost unbearable but I know that you would have wanted me to go on and I will,” Michelle wrote on the public Facebook memorial to David. “I vowed to you the day you went to heaven that I will be your voice and make changes and I have all the people who loved you behind me all the way.”
Michelle isn’t sure yet what form her effort will take. She wants to examine Bill C-300, expected to pass the House of Commons soon, that will create the first national suicide prevention strategy. And she wants to create a charity that will support a mental health program in Niagara in David’s name.
She also wants improved mental health training for school teachers and administrators, including principals and vice-principals, so they can better help students suffering from mental health problems.
“The system has to change,” she says. “It just has to.”