The man with the beautiful soul

Barb
Barb Sweet
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Sister pleads for improvements in mental health services after her brother’s suspected suicide

Tony Power was a gentle, quiet man and a gifted artist whose death might have been prevented if there were better mental health services in the community, his sister says.

“I don’t want him to be just a body in the harbour. I wanted people to know that this was a very special life, a very special person let down by our society,” Jennifer Power Scott said of Tony, who drowned in St. John’s harbour March 16 in an apparent suicide.

There were media reports of a ship’s crew finding the body, but the police did not report his name.

Tony suffered from schizophrenia, and his sister told his story to The Telegram as a means of fighting the stigma of mental illness.

“I can only pray and hope that somehow our tragedy can help somebody else and improve things for somebody else,” she said.

A New Brunswick freelance journalist, she doesn’t blame the mental health system solely for his death, nor does she condemn all its services.

“Tony was extremely kind. He wouldn’t want bitterness, anger, blame or excessive upset over this,” she said.

“The people who work in the mental health system are doing the best with what they have. The province needs to give them more.”

Jennifer, 42, who has two young daughters, said she also carries her own remorse.

“I am still putting blame on myself here, too. I didn’t call him enough.”

Her brother, who had a case manager at Eastern Health, was not inclined to ask for help and didn’t want to burden anyone.

“I definitely feel I could have done a better job,” she said.

“It’s a hell of a thing to live with.”

Tony didn’t always answer his phone and didn’t hook up the answering machine his sister gave him.

He would have turned 50 in June, one of four Power children raised in Grand-Falls Windsor, where their father, Philip, is a retired pulp mill office worker and their mother, Sheila, a retired secretary.

As a child, his art placed second in the provincial arts and letters competition, and he loved classical music and was a top student.

But he was quiet, and when an elementary school teacher told his parents he didn’t talk much to classmates, they took him to a doctor who said he was just shy.

Jennifer suspects he may have had autism or Asperger syndrome, a disorder that makes social interaction difficult, but he was never diagnosed with those conditions.

Tony, following in his brother Rob’s footsteps, completed a civil engineering degree at St. Francis Xavier University and the Technical University of Nova Scotia in the 1980s.

But he never got a job, likely because his then undiagnosed illness robbed him of the life skills he needed, his sister suspects.

Tony moved home with his parents.

Then, in 1989, he began studying art at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook.

Jennifer said her family was elated.

“This was going to change his life,” she said. “It seemed obvious what his love was.”

He excelled in the first term but in the second term his marks plummeted and Tony attempted suicide, swallowing more than 100 over-the-counter cold tablets.

Jennifer said he was released from hospital in Corner Brook, told he was depressed and needed a job, but was given no medication or formal diagnosis.

Back in Grand Falls-Windsor, he became more withdrawn and lost a lot of weight. His parents convinced him  to see a psychiatrist, who recognized that he was suffering from schizophrenia, and likely had been for a decade.

The doctor said he might do better if he built a life for himself, and so Tony went to St. John’s to ACCESS House — an 11-bed transitional housing service for people who have difficulty maintaining their independence because of mental illness.

There was 24-hour staff and meals were prepared by a cook, who Tony became friends with, Jennifer said.

When it was time to move on, Tony was placed in public housing, where he still lived with a roommate when he died.

And that’s where the mental health system falls down, Jennifer contends.

There are not enough supports in the community to help people cope independently, she said.

“We thought these experts knew what was best,” she said. “I see now that Tony needed more.”

While there are some boarding houses and family care arrangements through Eastern Health and facilities operated by non-profits, Jennifer said there needs to be more permanent housing alternatives that have support services, including meals, 24-hour staff and social activities.

“What happened in Tony’s situation is he isolated himself in his bedroom a lot of the time,” she said.

“While he was a genius on some levels, basic things like doing housework or cooking meals, those things don’t always come as easily to mentally ill people as they do the rest of us.”

Tony also began having seizures, including one in 2009 when he fell and gashed his head on the sidewalk in Grand Falls-Windsor.

Though he saw a neurologist, the cause was never pinpointed.

A year and a half ago, the family went to Eastern Health and got Tony a case manager. And although there were some improvements in his life, housing wasn’t one of them.

But there was a bright light. Healing Expressions, an art studio program for people struggling with mental illness, addictions, homelessness or poverty, operates at The Kirk — St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

Then, on the afternoon of March 16, Jennifer’s husband, Jeff, knocked on her home office door and said her mother was on the phone with tragic news. 

Her first thought was her 82-year-old father. She asked Jeff to take the call and sat at the kitchen table, her head in her arms, bracing  herself.

Jeff told her the police had found Tony.

“I started wailing,” said Jennifer, who in fall 2010 had written a compassionate, personal account of her brother’s struggles for Canadian Living magazine.

The family still holds onto slight possibility that he could have fallen into the harbour after a seizure.

Healing Expressions executive director Karen Hanlon met Tony 15 months before he died, and he came to the studio every day. On March 11, the group was set to go on a field trip to a Newfoundland pony sanctuary in Harbour Grace.

Tony loved horses. So when the normally punctual artist didn’t show up, Hanlon knew something was wrong and called him.

Through tears, he said he wouldn’t be coming back because he was losing his eyesight.

His last words to her were, “Thank you. Thank you for everything.”

Hanlon contacted his support worker and Tony agreed to a meeting the following week.

He’d always said, ‘See you tomorrow,’ but the day before the field trip he said, ‘goodbye,’” Hanlon said.

Tony had always had a preoccupation with his eyes and made a second attempt at suicide in the late 1990s because he thought he had degenerative eye disease, his sister said, adding that with schizophrenia, things that seem easy to everyone else can become giant problems.

Jennifer has also learned he was also stressed out because he had sold a painting and was over the savings limit imposed by social assistance.

A passionate naturalist, he was also troubled by world events such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and would have been profoundly shaken by the earthquake in Japan on March 11.

The day he died, there was frightening news from Japan of radiation leaking from nuclear reactors.

The people who love him want Tony remembered as the remarkable man he was. They want his life and art to help erase the stigma of mental illness and they want to see improved community supports.

Hanlon is organizing an exhibit of Tony’s work — he left hundreds of paintings behind.

“The paintings show what a beautiful, romantic colourful soul he had,” Jennifer said.

Hanlon said she always knew what kind of day Tony was having by the colours he chose for his paintings.

His last one was a landscape of pinks, purples and mauves. It made her think it is what heaven should look like, she said.

“Although Tony’s life ended in death, he had 15 months of self-expression of who he truly was,” she said.

“The answer is in all of us to make sure people don’t get swallowed up by their illness.

“Don’t throw them away because they struggle.”

A slide show of Tony’s work by Healing Expressions can be seen at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfsLXcKf684.

 

bsweet@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, St. Francis Xavier University, Technical University of Nova Scotia ACCESS House

Geographic location: New Brunswick, Grand-Falls Windsor, Corner Brook Grand Falls Grand Falls-Windsor.Though Japan Newfoundland Gulf of Mexico

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  • Central Gal
    May 08, 2011 - 13:29

    Unfortunately 2011 is no different than 1911. Nobody understands Mental Illness & it seems that nobody really cares they just brush it under the rug and hope it goes away on its own. It is sad today that people still do not treat mental illness as a illness. It is no different than someone having Cancer, Diabetes, MS. Heart Condition. It is an illness and it needs medications to help control it. You cannot live with an illness and expect to live your daily life as if it was normal because it isn't there's a chemical imbalance of the brain and this has to be treated to improve with daily living. Jennifer you must be so proud of his paintings they are so pure & so beautiful. Hopefully Tony someday people will understand what was happening inside your brain . R.I.P. Tony

  • JP
    May 08, 2011 - 07:23

    Very touching story, and a nice tribute to Tony from his sister who obviously loved him dearly. To Jennifer: we are all busy with our lives, please don't feel guilty because you lived yours and now are second guessing whether you called your brother enough. I'm sure where ever Tony is, he knows you loved him and will always love him. Good luck in the future.

  • Rosa
    May 07, 2011 - 21:48

    Jennifer, my condolences to you and your family, and my admiration and respect for you making your grief public, to possibly help others. I have been where you are, I lost my brother a few years ago to suicide. I blamed myself, figured there was something more I could have done. And, I like you, was in a different province than he was. The problem is that, there is so much ignorance surrounding mental illness. It really makes me mad. A chemical imbalance in the brain should be treated no differently than diabetes, MS, etc. People need to educate themselves about Mental illnesses, and that includes the Medical Professionals. And government needs to have more resources available to help those in need. Your brother sounds like he was an amazing, talented person. Treasure the good memories. And, give yourself a break, your brother does not sound like the type of person who would want you to harbour any regrets. Thank you for sharing.

  • Dorothy Kelly
    May 07, 2011 - 20:54

    RIP Tony, I only remember him as a child walking back and forth to school during our days at NDA when I was a classmate of Robert's. thank you Jennifer for bringing the angst out into the light of the mental health system in Newfoundland. So much is needed to improve the standards of living for our family members trying to live a useful and productive life while coping with a mental illness.

  • Lynne Sharman
    May 07, 2011 - 12:57

    I just watched the video slide show of Tony Power's paintings and I can hardly breathe from the impact of his gentle, unique and beautiful visual renderings of the world in which he resided. He didn't record the room he would isolate in or the agonies he must have been suffering -- these paintings truly are visions of his spirit. There are many things I could say about systemic disregard for the need for support and mediation with the 'outside' world, will end with gratitude for those who brought Tony's inner world to us. (from Thunder Bay)

  • Herb Morrison
    May 07, 2011 - 12:20

    I wrote this article and had it published in the Telegram when I was a member of the Community Editorial Board. I submit it for publication again, with thehope that it might lead to a better understanding of the nature of mental illness in general. Some time ago, a book was published which documented the battle that a number of persons had waged and, in some cases, were still waging against mental illness. When the call went out for submissions to this book, I was heavily engaged in my studies at grad school consequently, I missed the opportunity to make a submission. Apparently someone, or some group of people hoped that by having people tell their stories of their struggle with mental illness, this would serve as a step toward the eventual removal of the stigma, which even in our supposedly affluent society remains attached to mental illness in any form. From an historical perspective, the stigmatization of the mentally ill goes all the way back to Biblical times. In antiquity, any form of illness, be it of a mental or physical nature, was believed to have been caused by demons. While it isn’t likely that people living in our so-called affluent society attribute mental illness to some form of demonic possession; the myth that mental illness only happens to certain people is still perpetuated resulting in the stigmatization of anyone who suffers from mental illness in any form. In the interest of truth and in an effort to aid in bringing an end to the stigmatization of the mentally ill, this is my story. Recently I heard someone say: “ God is great and life is good.” This stuck in my mind because it so aptly describes my life today. It was not always so. Off and on, for at least twenty years of my life, I waged an ongoing battle with what is commonly known as clinical depression. , I will summarize my experience with this particular form of mental illness. First off, clinical depression is not caused by demons of any scription. In my case, there were a number of negative experiences which occurred relatively early in my life, which left emotional scars, that didn’t heal. The combined effect of these scars were the root cause of my depression. What is it like to live with clinical depression? I remember a character in the Peanuts comic strip. He lived his life walking under a rain cloud. Consequently, even when I was involved in situations, which should have made me happy, there was a feeling of gloom, which hung over me like a rain cloud and prevented me from enjoying life to the fullest. The emotional pain eventually became too great. I found myself at the proverbial “bottom of the barrel.” Obviously, I survived the suicide attempt. Initially the professional help I received was ineffective in dealing effectively with my illness. It was not until 1996 that I finally received professional help that freed me from the grip of the mental illness that had held me in its’ grasp for most of my life. I have not had a recurrence of the depression, which was so much of my life for so many years. I am a flesh and blood human being. What happened to me could happen to anyone. While this doesn’t hold true for all forms of mental illness, clinical depression seems to be one on the more common forms of mental illness. Firstly, I hope, that by relating my own experience, persons suffering from clinical depression will be encouraged to seek out effective professional help. Secondly, I hope that by openly relating my experience with mental illness, this will aid in eradicating the stigma attached to mental illness of any description. God is great. Life is good.

  • Leah
    May 07, 2011 - 09:30

    The issue of any kind of mental illness HAS TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY by the professionals, as well as the general public. It is a disease; not self-inflected. It is pure hell, and most times like living daily in a hopeless bottomless spinning black hole, struggling just to get through the day, and especially long lonely evenings, and made even worse by the attitudes and actions of others. Please help us, or at least try to understand. Stop critiizing and making fun of us. I am one of those that, sadly, no medication has helped. To Tony's family, Heartfelt condolences. He is painting for God and the angels now.

  • Mary
    May 07, 2011 - 08:35

    What a sad story..I remember the day the authorities took a body from the harbour and said to my husband " whoever it is he or she is somebodies child, brother or sister, mom or dad" and said a prayer as always for the love one and their family. It has to be the most devastating news. I pray Jennifer that you and your family will heal in time and know that he will always be with you in your heart. I know that from experience with a friend's family member you will feel guilt, it's part of the process, who we are, but you are not responsible for what happened to your brother. God Bless you Tony, RIP.