Jul 29, 2014
Hamilton Spectator
By Laura Armstrong

From the tender age of 14, young people are masters of their own medical treatment under the law, from birth control to mental health care.

“It really handcuffs families, but it is the legislation,” said Phyllis Grant-Parker, executive director of Parents Lifeline of Eastern Ontario. “Legally, physicians cannot discuss with a parent about their child of 14 or older unless the child has given them permission to do so.”

Often, Grant-Parker said, it takes a traumatic event before there is some positive intervention. That seemed to be the case for Ali Shahi, a Mississauga man suffering from depression and a gambling problem who allegedly uttered a direct threat while on board a Sunwing flight from Pearson International Airport to Panama Friday.

MORE: Man charged in alleged security threat on Sunwing flight

Shahi was arrested in Toronto after the plane turned around. On Saturday, his parents, who were at a loss over what to do about their son’s erratic behaviour, spent hours in closed-door sessions with a judge arranging for Shahi to finally receive a 72-hour psychiatric evaluation.

Under Canada’s Mental Health Act, only physicians, justices and police officers are able to commission a person’s involuntary admission to a mental health assessment, said Lin Fang, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

Their families, the people who know them best, are left virtually powerless, Fang said.

“Usually family members spend a lot of time with the individuals. They can notice the behaviours much better than a physician or other professional who maybe only spends a very short time with the individual.”

Justin Bourque, 24, who allegedly shot and killed three Mounties in New Brunswick in early June, suffers from depression, his father, Victor Bourque, said in an interview with Postmedia News. His parents tried to get the police involved, to no avail. Bourque’s case, his father said, fell through the cracks.

A study by the Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates two out of every five people with mental illness have been arrested in their lifetime, three in every 10 people with mental illness have had the police involved in their care pathway and one in seven referrals to emergency psychiatric in-patient services involves the police.

Local police officers were dispatched to 20,550 calls for service involving an emotionally disturbed person, 8,384 of which resulted in an apprehension under the Mental Health Act, said the recent use-of-force report by retired Justice Frank Iacobucci commissioned by Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair.

For parents, the province’s mental health system is not intuitive, said Grant-Parker, who also works with Toronto-based organization Parents for Children’s Mental Health.

“We recently did a survey of parents who do support a child, youth or young adult with mental illness, and 85 per cent of them identified that navigating the system was extremely challenging for them.”

Only one in six young people will receive the treatment they need, Grant-Parker said. Finding an entry point and knowing where to go for help are two obstacles parents face. Families lucky enough to find an in for their young adult usually do so after spending time on a wait list.

The process is extremely stressful for parents, who are forced into aggressively advocating for their children’s care, Grant-Parker said.

“Whether it’s a child or an adolescent or a young adult child, just being able to understand the system is very fragmented and knowing where to turn is a major challenge.”

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