Psychiatric 'crisis': No beds, he’s stuck in jail

“I despair.”

That was the tortured cry from a young man who found himself behind bars at the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre because no beds were available at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital in Port Coquitlam.

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Before Jan. 27, 2014, the 24-year-old athlete, whose identity is protected by a court order, had never been convicted of a criminal offence and had never been in jail. But that night, outside the courthouse, he became distraught. A security guard tried to keep him calm. Then police arrived and the situation went sideways. The young man hit the officers and was charged with assault causing bodily harm.

After his arrest, it became increasingly clear that he was severely mentally ill. He was certified under the Mental Health Act and diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. Because of his volatility and acute psychosis, he was not admitted to a local hospital but taken to jail and placed in separate confinement, a category for mentally ill offenders who need protection from themselves or from others.

On Feb. 13, the Crown and defence urged provincial court Judge Sue Wishart to get the man out of jail by ordering that he be assessed at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital, which provides specialized forensic psychiatric services for adults in conflict with the law, within 30 days. She made the order. However, no bed was available and he was kept in jail, assessed by a forensic psychiatrist on Feb. 17.

The psychiatrist concluded he was mentally ill, possibly not criminally responsible by reason of a mental disorder. The psychiatrist recommended that he be admitted to the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital for treatment.

No bed was available.

The young man’s agony was revealed in an affidavit brought before a hearing in B.C. Supreme Court after the defence applied for an order that he be transferred immediately to the hospital.

The affidavit said that he spent his days in a cold isolation cell 23 hours a day.

The cell had a rubber mat for a bed and a toilet.

A video camera watched and recorded his every move.

He was shackled and chained around the waist.

He did not have enough to eat.

He saw almost no one and had no books, no pen, no paper.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Shabehram Lohrasbe, who worked at the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital for more than seven years, said jail and segregation are bad news for the people with mental illness.

“There is no question that a person with a major mental disorder is not well served through incarceration in general and certainly ill-served by segregation,” he said. “We have a long, long history of knowledge of what that kind of isolation can do to anyone’s mental state, you and me included, never mind someone who starts off with a mental problem.”

People who are mentally ill belong in a hospital with staff who are used to treating the mentally ill, he said.

“It’s not good if they are held in jail and are thrown into the mix with people who don’t have mental illness, who may not be sympathetic or understanding or may be reactive and worsen their mental status,” Lohrasbe said.

In his affidavit, the young man wrote: “I have been treated inhumanely. I feel like I have lost control of my life … I’ve been completely isolated. I feel like I’m losing contact with reality. I am afraid for my physical and mental safety. I am confused, depressed, angry, frustrated and sad.

“I despair.”

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