The man with the beautiful soul

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

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on May 7, 2011

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