Health minister Glen Abernethy has opened a review into the death of Yellowknife teenager Timothy Henderson.
Family members say the 19-year-old, who had a history of self-harm, died while “acting out a suicide scenario” last month.
Timothy’s parents believe a series of failings by healthcare professionals let their child down and contributed to the teenager’s death.
“The Timothy situation is tragic. I feel for the family. It’s absolutely devastating,” Abernethy told reporters on Thursday, speaking at the launch of a music video promoting mental health awareness.
“There are a number of supports here in the NWT but, from time to time, they don’t always meet the needs of the individual.
“I’ve asked for a file review on that particular case to help us identify what, if any, gaps exist in the system, so that we can come forward with ways to improve it.”
The health department is still defining the terms of the review, and does not have a date for its completion.
“We’ve got all the supports, but clearly it doesn’t always work,” added Abernethy.
“We want to be there for our residents, we try to be there for our residents, and we’re going to continue to be there for our residents.”
Timothy’s parents, Ian Henderson and Connie Boraski, and stepfather James Boraski, believe doctors in the NWT missed a number of opportunities to intervene and avoid tragedy.
Timothy voluntarily made trips to psych wards on at least five occasions, but was routinely released with discharge care plans that appear – from documents shown to Moose FM – barely to change from year to year.
The teenager’s family members were not given the contents of those care plans, as Timothy had passed the age of 17, at which point adult privacy laws take effect.
However, this had the effect of leaving nobody but Timothy responsible for ensuring the care plans were followed. Timothy’s parents say this was needlessly dangerous and, regardless, believe the care plan itself left Timothy ill-equipped to cope with increasingly severe mood swings.
“It’s really, really frustrating for us as parents, having to recount those things in our mind each time, knowing all the things that Timothy did to try to help himself – screaming out for help – that were dismissed or invalidated,” James Boraski told Moose FM.
“They even observed him trying to self-harm under their care and control, a couple of days before they released him [for the final time],” Boraski alleged. “That’s obviously a disconnect. That’s a lack of professional judgment, in our opinion.”
Boraski also recalled Timothy’s frustration at continually having to start from scratch with locum psychologists and psychiatrists – who, because of high staff turnover, are employed to temporarily fill vacancies within the NWT healthcare system.
“He was always starting from the grassroots, right from the bottom, but his problems had advanced to the point where he needed greater attention,” said Boraski.
“That’s why we need to do the file review,” responded Abernethy, acknowledging this problem.
Abernethy also stood by comments made by Dr Bing Guthrie to Moose FM earlier in the week.
Guthrie told us deaths like Timothy’s were sometimes unavoidable, and insisted the territory was doing all it could – a response that left the Boraskis and Ian Henderson infuriated.
“To me, that says the medical healthcare system has resolved to accept that outcome. And if anybody has resolved to accept that outcome, I think it’s a really dismal future for a lot of the youth that are struggling,” said James Boraski.
But Abernethy said that was simply a realistic outlook.
“Unfortunately, ultimately, if somebody wants to do self-harm – and kill themselves, basically – they can,” said the health minister.
“We’re not going to be able to stop everybody. We want to make sure every person has options and availability of programs so they can get the help they need. But unfortunately, from time to time, it’s not going to meet its intended target.”
Abernethy launched a music video entitled “You’re Not Alone” on Thursday, which reminds NWT residents that help exists if they are struggling with their mental health.
The video features contributions from a number of leading local musicians, such as Leela Gilday and Godson.
“This is an important event about creating awareness and breaking down the stigma,” said Abernethy.
“These artists have a great voice and an ability to communicate information to different masses, different individuals, than we would through paper or talking.”