A Prince Edward Island woman’s months-long quest to bring her estranged son home from Toronto highlights the challenges families face accessing health care options for loved ones living with mental illness and the gaps in social supports, says one local street nurse.
Five years ago, Marlene Bryenton’s adult son started experiencing delusions and was diagnosed with a serious mental illness, she says. He was initially staying in various places in the Maritimes, but earlier this year relocated to southern Ontario.
Shortly after, Bryenton began posting on her Facebook profile and in local community groups as a way to find him. She told CP24.com on Monday that since January she’s received thousands of messages from “kind, caring” people who have seen and helped her son, who has most recently been spotted in west Toronto.
“It’s astonishing, really. At least it gives us peace of mind that he’s still alive. If we didn’t have these pictures I think I’d be going crazy,” said Bryenton, who is also trying to take the legal route in her efforts to bring her son back to Prince Edward Island to be hospitalized and given medication. According to Bryenton, her son does not recognize that he is ill and has resisted accepting treatment.
Under Canada’s various provincial mental acts, members of the public can ask a Justice of the Peace to issue a form that allows the police to apprehend and bring a person whose well-being is of concern to a doctor for a psychiatric examination.
In Ontario, for example, a physician has the authority to detain a patient at the hospital for up to three days if it is determined that there is a risk of them harming themselves, or others, and that there’s evidence of a mental disorder related to or causing that risk.
Bryenton believes her son fits this criteria as she’s received reports from people on social media that some of his actions, like being in live traffic and sleeping on the road, are unsafe and may cause him harm.
During an interview with CP24.com, Bryenton said that earlier this year she tried twice to use this legal tool, but was unsuccessful.
Last month, a Justice of the Peace approved it, but she said her son was released from the hospital after 72 hours by the inpatient psychiatrist – during a heat wave. It is not known if he is currently receiving any follow-up care or support as medical records are confidential.
This week, Bryenton is trying for a fourth time to obtain this order, which is known as a Form 2 in Ontario.
“I’m just trying to save (his) life. … (My husband and I) want to get our son back. We feel that he has the right to get his life back, his health back, and his job back,” she said, adding their worst fear is that their son will be found frozen in a snowbank when the cold weather hits.
“At this point in time, (my son) is barely existing on the streets of Toronto. He does not have the life he deserves.”
Bryenton said this whole journey is a “parent’s worst nightmare” and it makes no sense for a person who is mentally ill to be on the street “fending for themselves.”
“I will never give up. I will absolutely never give up,” she vowed.
CONCERNS ABOUT PRIVACY
Street nurse Roxie Danielson has spent the last decade working with people experiencing homelessness in Toronto, many of whom have, and sometimes struggle with, mental illness.
She said she appreciates and empathizes with Bryenton’s concern for her son, but stresses that there are some significant ethical dilemmas that come with sharing photos and videos, as well as his personal information, without consent on social media.
“These things can stay on the internet potentially forever,” she said, adding images and footage of this man’s vulnerable state that are being posted on Facebook could impact his future employment opportunities. He may also not want family members and friends to see them in the future, she said.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stigma associated with mental health. … It can bring a lot of shame,” Danielson said, adding while she hopes that this man gets the help he needs, he also has the right to privacy and the agency to decide how he wants to live his life, as long as he’s not at risk of or harming himself or others.
“Just because someone is in a mental health state doesn’t mean that they can’t take care of themselves,” Danielson said, adding one of the key things to note is that this individual is not actually a missing person.
“People have the right to live where they want, to access the healthcare system as they wish, and the right to decide if they want to take medication. … We have no right to judge. We can’t push what we think health or housing looks like for someone.”
Roxie Danielson is a Toronto-based street nurse. (Joanna Lavoie/CP24)
Danielson went on to say that while it may be hard to accept or even understand, this man has interacted with Ontario’s healthcare system and was deemed fit to be discharged from the hospital. He should now be afforded the right to live his life the way he chooses, she said.
“It’s not right for his life to be a spectacle. None of us would like that. It’s hugely invasive,” said Danielson.
“We need to respect people and we need to centre their dignity.”
She also noted that individuals with mental illness should not be criminalized for something that is out of their control.
“Forming someone continuously is not the answer,” she said, adding the police are not properly trained to deal with people who are in a mental health crisis and as a result a lot of the unhoused people she cares for end up in jail or with criminal records.
“(Orders like this) should really be the last resort and only used if someone is seriously at risk of harming themselves or others. They further trauma and create distress.”
Danielson said ultimately what’s needed are more social supports and adequate, affordable housing, not to mention access to healthcare in the community, so that the loved ones of people with mental illness know that they’re being properly taken care of, even if they choose to stay elsewhere.
“A lot of mental illness is actually exacerbated by being unhoused,” she noted.
Bryenton, meanwhile, has created a petition that calls for her son to be returned home and to “bring awareness and change to our broken mental health laws in Canada.” In just a month’s time, more than 4,000 people have signed it.
“It is very obvious that the Mental Health Act is not working. I am convinced that it needs to be overhauled,” she wrote on the petition.
“It is very difficult to help a loved one experiencing mental illness under the existing Act. I describe it best as hoops to hop and roadblocks at every turn.”
One legal tool that currently doesn’t exist on Prince Edward Island is the community treatment order, which requires mental health patients discharged from the hospital after a month or more to follow certain requirements, like taking anti-psychotic medication.
Charlottetown MLA Susie Dillon is in the process of lobbying to add this order to her province’s Mental Health Act. It was first read two years ago, but shelved and now requires a second reading and Royal Assent to become law.
“If this was in effect for my son, I believe that he wouldn’t be roaming the streets of Toronto now,” said Bryenton, who is involved in helping move that effort forward.
Bryenton is also supporting Charlottetown MP Sean Casey who is working to bring advanced medical directives to the federal Mental Health Act, which outline a mental health patient’s preferences for treatment in the event of a crisis. This fall, he plans to introduce a private member’s bill to the senate.
“There are lots of (people like my son) on our streets. All of this is not about the Bryenton family, it’s about all families going through this,” she said.