People with mental illness living unassisted is a recipe for disaster, says the sister of a man who was evicted from his apartment last week after starting a fire in the kitchen.
Tina Olivero said she has been advocating for her older brother’s wellness for more than 30 years, and the last thing he should be in charge of is himself.
“What if he burned down the apartment building and all the people in it?” said the 50-year-old publisher of an oil and gas magazine.
“When people are at risk with mental illness, they often have lapses in memory and go into other worlds of thinking. When this happens, they are no longer in touch with reality or potential dangers they are creating — and therefore they are a danger to themselves and others,” said Olivero, whose brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic depression in the 1980s.
Since his eviction, he has been fortunate enough to find a bed at the Wiseman Centre in downtown St. John’s, she said, and the hope is to eventually move him into an assisted living facility in Conception Bay South.
Olivero said the week before he was evicted, she called the police to have her brother admitted to a hospital and to have his driver’s licence revoked — because he refuses to go to hospital on his own.
But after the police went to check on him, she said they called her back and told her there was nothing wrong with him and nothing they could do.
Olivero said the health-care system — and every other system that deals with people with mental illness — needs to consider input from the people who care for their loved ones and allow them to help determine their fate.
“Especially when they are in acute stages of illness,” she said, adding she wanted to share her family’s struggle with mental health.
Over the past two weeks The Telegram has published several stories about the challenges people face when dealing with mental health and addictions issues.
“The last time my brother was really sick, we’d put him in the Waterford Hospital and it took us until 3 a.m to have him finally admitted. How frustrating and defeating it was to find out the next morning the staff let him out based on the laws and his freedom to choose,” she said.
“How do you give someone who is mentally unstable the ability to choose when they could kill someone driving (unknowingly), or they could burn an apartment building down?”
She said she first noticed changes in her brother’s behaviour when the family lived in St. John’s during the 1980s. He was working on an oil rig at the time.
She said with each turnaround she would see something new.
“It was like he had snapped. I watched him leave this reality and exist in realities that only he could see. One minute he’d be thinking and speaking from times when we were kids … then he’d be talking in different languages. The next minute he’d be telling me to watch out for all the people who were after us — people like the FBI,” she said.
She said sometimes her brother was well and could work, other times he was so sick he couldn’t feel cigarettes burning his fingers.
“Sometimes we would find him on the highway in the middle of a Newfoundland winter snowstorm. Other times we’d find him in mounds of mess in his apartment, alone,” she said.
Now that her brother’s at the Wiseman Centre and has had a social worker appointed to his case, the family has a measure of relief.
“I feel better than I did a week ago, because, No. 1, he has a roof over his head — he’s not alone,” Olivero said. “He’s getting three square meals a day and he’s not going to kill someone out of absentmindedness.”
The number of mental-health-related calls to the RNC has doubled over the past 10 years, says Deputy Chief Ab Singleton.
He said in the RNC’s jurisdiction there have been 1,900 calls this year with 1,600 of them from the Northeast Avalon. Last year’s total was 1,785.
The increase in calls, he said, keeps officers off the street.
“If an individual is detained under the Mental Health Care and Treatment Act in our region, they are taken to the Waterford Hospital for an assessment, and yes, there are problems at times with (waiting to have) people assessed,” said the veteran police officer.
“And in not all situations is the person sitting back being passive — we might have a person after causing harm to themselves and have to be medically assessed, or they could be very violent, and we are not only responsible for the safety of that individual but the safety of our officers and the people in hospital — staff and patients,” Singleton told The Telegram Friday.
He said the issue is being addressed by a committee struck by Eastern Health and the police.
Singleton said revisions to the mental health act have given the police more discretion in responding to those kinds of calls.
“The act allows us to use the information from a third party,” he explained, “whereby under the old act, a police officer must observe a person before acting. A person could call in and say, ‘This person is putting the place up,’ but when we get there, they’re acting normal, so we couldn’t act.
“Now police officers can act using third-party information — speak to people at the scene, process the information and hopefully make the right judgment call when determining to apprehend a person for a psychiatric assessment.”
Singleton said officers receive training in mental-health issues as part of the police studies program at Memorial University and, as part of a new program in partnership with Bell Aliant Pioneers, they and other emergency responders will be trained in dealing with youth with mental-health issues.
Eastern Health encourages anyone who may need mental-health services to contact the Mental Health Crisis Line at 737-4668, 24 hours a day.
Anyone with questions or concerns about the care they have received should contact the client relations office, 777-6500 or toll-free at 1-877-444-1399.
PLACES TO CALL FOR HELP
Mental health and addiction services
Some services available for adults:
Mental health crisis line 737-4668 or toll free 888-737-4668
Gambling help line 888-899-4357
Mobile crisis response team 737-4668
Opioid Treatment Centre 752-4478
Recovery Centre 752-4980
Addictions library 752-4120