Morgan Taylor's mental health factored in his sentence for the death of Chris Farrell. Did the system fail them both?
On Jan. 5, 2011, a fatal accident happened on the main road in Port aux Basques. The lives of the two very different men involved were left tangled together in a way that has seen both their families dealing with an emotional wreckage of their own, and wondering how a system failed them both.
Morgan John Taylor, 47 at the time, was a father and a grandfather. A handyman and a painter, always looking for new projects, on his good days he was gentle and loving, and would give all he had to help someone in need. His bad days were a bit unpredictable. In 2008, Taylor was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental disorder which, according to the Canadian Psychological Association, affects 2.2 per cent of Canadians and is characterized by severe mood swings. During manic periods, patients experience intense highs and euphoria, leading to activities such as excessive spending and reckless driving, and even hallucinations and delusions. During the down-cycle, they experience a major depression.
Taylor had been seeking help for his illness, but it wasn’t an easy road. He lost 30 pounds and was too sick to continue working.
“When he was well-treated, he was perfect,” Taylor’s daughter, Dana Taylor, said. “But like a lot of people with mental illnesses, you can be taking the medications so long, you feel so great you think you don’t need them, and you stop taking them.”
When not on medication, Taylor, like many others with a mental health diagnosis, would self-medicate with alcohol, leading to a handful of impaired driving charges.
Christopher Farrell, 22, was an only child. Popular around town, Farrell was known for wearing black and for his love of music — he wrote songs and would often break out his guitar at parties or gatherings. His motto was “Seize the Day,” a slogan he had tattooed on his arm. For the most part, he was unassuming; unbeknownst to his family at the time, he was also known among friends as the one to go to if you had a problem you just couldn’t deal with anymore. One friend says Chris talked him out of suicide; another says Chris gave him encouragement to come out of the closet.
“I’m not going to say he was always an angel, because no one is,” Chris’s mother, Donna Elms, told The Telegram. “But he was a good person. He was everything.”
Chris was working with the town council, building a boardwalk near the beach. On Jan. 5 he called Elms around 11:30 a.m. to say he’d be coming home for lunch, and just before 12:30 p.m., Elms decided to leave a little early for work to see if she could catch him walking home and give him a ride. Not far from her house, she came across an accident. On the ground, surrounded by police and paramedics, she said, she saw something black in the snow. She knew right away that it was Chris.
“I turned the car around and I watched them work on him. Nobody had to tell me it was Chris — my mother’s instinct told me it was,” she said.
Morgan John Taylor, in the midst of the height of a manic episode, borrowed a friend’s car on the morning of Jan. 5 to pick up the medication he needed to treat his bipolar disorder. When police attempted to pull him over in an effort to question him about a reported disturbance earlier in the day, Taylor fled. Police say he was driving erratically and speeding almost 100 kilometres an hour when they decided to stop pursuing him because it was unsafe. On the main road, Taylor’s car struck Chris Farrell, who was thrown up in the air and into the sign of a nearby pizza restaurant. He died at the scene.
Taylor was immediately arrested and charged with dangerous driving causing death, and a psychiatric assessment confirmed he had been in the manic stage of bipolar disorder, though he wasn’t deemed sick enough to avoid a trial. He pleaded guilty and, last week, was given a 26-month sentence, less 118 days served, followed by an eight-year driving ban. Provincial court judge Laura Mennie said Taylor’s mental health and diagnosis were factors when it came to his sentencing, and prefaced her decision by saying the sentence should no way reflect the value of Chris’ life.
“It does in our hearts,” his mother, Donna Elms told The Telegram. “It’s not fair to us and it’s not fair to Christopher. He was innocent in all this. The maximum sentence (for Taylor’s charge) was 14 years. I just don’t think he got what he should have gotten. It’s hard for us as a family to accept the justice system.”
Elms said she accepts Taylor’s diagnosis and understands he was struggling at the time of the accident, but feels there is a certain level of responsibility he must take, all the same.
“If he can live on his own and do his own day-to-day activities, can cook his own meals and everything else and was deemed fit to stand trial, he has to take responsibility,” she explained. “He didn’t help himself by taking his medication like he should have, and because of that, he put himself in this situation. If the doctor put me on medication for high blood pressure and I didn’t take it and something happened, I couldn’t blame the doctors. He wasn’t helping himself.”
Living without Chris “has been hell,” Elms said, noting she can see the site where he was killed from her home window. She lives through photographs and his music, as well as a close relationship with his longtime girlfriend, whom she says has not moved on yet. Elms established a Grade 12 music scholarship in Chris’ name last year, and has gotten approval from the town of Port aux Basques to have a memorial bench and plaque placed on the boardwalk he was helping to construct, once it’s completed.
Life has been hard for Taylor’s family, too. They are still trying to come to terms with an unpredictable illness, as well as their father’s role in Chris’ death. Dana Taylor said her dad, currently in the lockup on the west coast awaiting a move to Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s, is remorseful.
“When it first happened, he wanted to reach out to the family,” she said. “He has cried about it, and he has talked about it, putting himself in the family’s position. He is very remorseful, and he fully understands that he needs to pay the consequences. That’s why he pleaded guilty, although he’s fearful of prison life.”
Since Taylor’s case ended last week, online commentators and others have objected to his sentence, saying he should have gotten the punishment for murder. He’s been called “hopeless,” “crazy,” and “unable to rehabilitate,” and Dana’s worried others dealing with bipolar disorder might feel this is actually the case. She’s afraid the stigma attached to mental illness — which her father experienced first-hand before the accident, she said — will discourage others from seeking the treatment they need.
“There needs to be some basic education around mental illness, and I pity people with such ignorance about it in this day and age,” she said. “People with mental illnesses can be respected, contributing members of society.”
Patrick Dion is vice-chairman of the board of directors for the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Struck by the federal government five years ago, part of the commission’s mandate is to identify gaps in mental health care across the country, and develop a mental health strategy — Canada is currently the only G8 country without one.
Through its Opening Minds strategy, the commission is also hoping to be able to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues which often impedes those suffering with them to seek help. It’s one reason why substance abuse and mental illness go hand in hand.
“It’s the easily available medication to help the pain go away, because it’s easier to go that route than to go to your physician and say, ‘I think I’m hearing auditory hallucinations, what am I supposed to do now?’ because of the barriers of stigma,” Dion explained.
Dion got involved in mental health issues after becoming an activist. His brother has bipolar and suffered his first psychotic episode as a university student, 25 years ago. Lead by Dion, the family made an intervention and brought him into care against his will. Like Taylor, Dion’s brother had stopped taking his medication.
“That’s pretty typical,” Dion said. “The good news is he now understands his life needs to be medicated, he’s living within the limitations of his illness, and he was properly diagnosed as someone living with bipolar disorder.
“I believe that everybody’s journey to recovery is different, but nobody should be denied the chance to get there because the system has not been able to provide you with the care you need, or worse, the reaction of the community might be so overwhelming, you’d say ‘It’s better to live like I am without care than attack that stigma.’”
One in five Canadians lives with a mental health issue, Dion said; a conservative estimate, given the stigma associated with self-identifying. Seven million Canadians will develop a mental health issue this year alone.
The commission’s strategy, released last April, includes more than 100 recommendations for transformation of the current system when it comes to mental health, and identifies places where people may fall through the gaps.
Both Dana and Elms feel the system has let them down when it comes to Taylor’s mental state and the consequences of it. Both agree that Taylor should be banned from driving for life, given the symptoms of his illness.
“My anger is at him, yes,” Elms said, “but it’s also at a system that allowed Chris’ death to happen; that allowed Mr. Taylor to never accept the fact that he had bipolar. If you have an epileptic seizure, it’s a year before you’re allowed to drive again. To me, knowing the potential of his illness, it should be the same in this kind of case.
“I don’t want people to think I’m saying anyone with bipolar shouldn’t drive — I have friends and I know people with bipolar who drive and are fine. But if (a patient) is not going to help themselves, not going to follow the doctor’s orders and take their medication and get their blood work done, they shouldn’t be allowed to drive, and they should take full responsibility for their actions.”
Dana agrees there should be certain things made mandatory for people suffering the way her father was. At the time of the accident, his psychiatric appointments were only scheduled monthly, she said, adding group support meetings and more regular one-on-one time with a psychiatrist could have gone a long way to help her father.
“When he wasn’t taking his meds, he didn’t have to do anything,” she said. “People with mental illness have to have access to the support they need to enable them to function. And other people need to be educated and non-judgmental.”
Note: This story has been edited.