Getting the mentally ill out of here

Tannis Smith's furniture was slashed open with a butcher knife. (Smith's name has been changed to protect the identity of her son.) There were profanities scrawled across the wall in blue marker. And the offending knife was stabbed into a candle on top of the TV. But she wasn't surprised by the state of her living room.

Tannis Smith’s furniture was slashed open with a butcher knife. (Smith’s name has been changed to protect the identity of her son.)

There were profanities scrawled across the wall in blue marker.

And the offending knife was stabbed into a candle on top of the TV.

But she wasn’t surprised by the state of her living room.

For the past seven years, Smith’s been struggling to stabilize her son’s mental health.

Billy (not his real name) was eight years old when he had his first psychotic episode.

The family was living in Saskatchewan at the time.

A couple years later, things got worse.

By the time he was 11, Billy was attacking teachers, destroying property and had attempted suicide.

These years are a blur for Smith.

There were multiple diagnoses, including mood disorders, conduct disorders and depressive anxiety disorders; her son was in and out of mental health wards, there were visits to psychiatrists and residential treatment was recommended.

But Billy wasn’t improving.

By the time he was 12, he was using drugs and getting more and more difficult to handle.

That’s when Smith moved to the Yukon.

She was offered a good job and thought the move to a new place might help her son get a fresh start.

Her ex, who has joint custody of Billy, remained in Saskatchewan.

As soon as she arrived, Smith contacted mental health services and began the lengthy intake process for Billy, she said.

The application process was not user friendly and took longer than Smith expected, she said.

Smith completed mental health’s intake, “but they never called me back,” she said.

“I got the feeling they were not willing to provide the services because my son was not compliant.”

Now in his early teens, Billy denies his mental health problems.

“And if the child won’t co-operate, they won’t help him,” she said.

“But he’s not co-operating because of his mental health problems.”

Billy started stealing money and jewelry from his mom.

Then he started “car shopping,” stealing anything he could find from vehicles parked downtown.

The RCMP got involved, and Billy faced various charges, including a mischief charge for jamming his foot through his mom’s living room ceiling and smashing out her car’s taillights.

In June, after appearing in court, her son was involuntarily placed in the psych ward at Whitehorse General Hospital.

Twenty-one days later, he was released “with no psychiatric dysfunctions or impairments,” according to a Health and Social Services interim release report.

However, “throughout the past seven months, (he) has displayed high-risk behaviour, severe mood swings, destructive behaviour and has had suicidal thoughts,” said the report.

On his release, Smith was told to contact alcohol and drug services for support.

Billy was put on a waitlist.

In November, he was involuntarily placed in the psych ward again. This time for six days, after a particularly bad episode.

“He was released with minimal conditions,” according to the Health Department’s report.

Smith was again told to seek counselling from alcohol and drug services.

But Billy was already on its waitlist.

More than eight months later, he’s still waiting.

Smith again turned to mental health services, but faced the same roadblocks – because Billy didn’t want help, there was little that could be done.

“But he’s only 15,” she said.

By Christmas, Billy was packing fake guns in his jeans, was talking about armed robbery and had delusions he was a rock star.

Finally, due to a court order that came out of his mischief charges, Billy was sent out for an assessment in January.

In the airport, Billy thought the probation officers accompanying him were bodyguards there to restrain the fans who were following him.

“On admission to the Inpatient Assessment Unit (in BC), Billy was in a manic state,” said the Youth Forensic Psychiatric Service Report from January 20, written by psychiatrist Dr. Paul Janke.

Janke’s report reveals the boy “doesn’t want to live with his mother because she sets rules, and Billy has a highly conflicted relationship with his mother,” who’d been his primary caregiver most of his life.

And although he admits his father had drug addiction issues and violent episodes, Billy still says he wants to live with his dad because he “is a cool guy,” writes Janke.

Billy has serious drug addiction issues, problems with authority, psychotic episodes, bipolar, oppositional defiant disorder and various other mood disorders, according to Janke’s report.

Janke recommends Billy be placed in a therapeutic foster home, or therapeutic group home “where there is staff with extensive experience dealing with individuals with psychiatric illness.”

And Smith agrees.

No longer able to control her son, or deal with his violent outbursts, Smith hoped the BC assessment would result in a treatment plan that would help Billy get his life back.

Instead, Yukon child and family services placed Billy at the Boy’s Receiving Home, and started making plans to send him south to live with his dad, she said.

In a warrant to bring Billy into its care, child and family services examines the option of sending the troubled teen to live with his dad.

Billy’s father “acknowledged he is a willing and able parent to parent (him) and would like to have him return to his care,” it states.

And while his father believes Janke’s “recommendation with respect to residential treatment is valid, he did not feel this was the route to take with Billy at this time,” stated the child and family services report.

Last year, after spending the summer with his dad, Billy returned to the Yukon off his meds, according to Janke’s report.

“And now they want to send (Billy) to live with him,” said Smith.

Janke’s report clearly recommends “the need for appropriate residence and placement.

“His needs would be better met by social services networks and mental health services,” wrote Janke.

But only “when youth/adults are committed under the Mental Health Act can they be directed to a certain facility for safe care,” according to mental health director Marie Fast, quoted in the Family and Child Services Report.

Mental health services hasn’t helped us, said Smith.

“We need a treatment plan,” she said.

“But the territory just wants to get him out of here and wash its hands of him.”

Friday morning, Smith got a call from child and family services telling her Billy is booked on a Sunday flight back to Saskatchewan to live with his dad.

“And they have no plan or safeguards in place,” she said.

“My son is mentally ill, and there is all this insanity going on.

“It’s hugely concerning, extremely neglectful – and I am terrified.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at