Teen suicide casts shadow in Comox Valley riding

COURTENAY — There was a long, awkward silence when it came time for students to ask questions of B.C. political candidates at Mark R. Isfeld Secondary School. Most stared off across the gymnasium or shuffled their feet. Megan Lawrence stood up.

The 17-year-old Grade 12 student walked to the podium in front of more than 200 of her peers to ask the first question of the all-candidates debate: What are you going to do to help young people struggling with mental-health issues?

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It’s a timely question in the Comox Valley, where five teens committed suicide between 2009 and 2011, leading the B.C. Coroners Service to issue a public statement.

The issue has even cast a shadow over two planned North Island hospitals. The B.C. Liberals had hoped the $600 million spent on the facilities would bolster their re-election chances. Instead, the party is under attack for the lack of dedicated youth mental-health beds and the long waiting lists for help.

“It’s just something no one is doing anything about,” said Lawrence, who waited more than five months to get an appointment with the only youth psychiatrist for her depression — and is still waiting for other counselling.

“It’s a need in the community that’s not being filled by anybody.”

Despite a recommendation by a coroners jury in 2012 — after another teen suicide — the Vancouver Island Health Authority says there isn’t demand for dedicated youth mental-health beds in the new 153-bed Comox hospital, set to open in 2017.

“I would advocate for an alteration in [hospital] design and a dedicated youth bed,” said NDP candidate Kassandra Dycke.

She said she would also work to reduce the average nine-month wait for mental-health services and boost funding for local community groups using the $35 million proposed by the NDP for youth mental health.

“A lot of parents will struggle at home with their teens who are suicidal, dealing with very serious mental health issues, waiting to get treatment for their young people nine months later,” said Dycke, who works at the Comox Military Family Resource Centre and has been campaigning for 18 months.

Liberal incumbent Don McRae, who served as agriculture and education minister during his rookie term, said space in the new hospital could be sectioned off for youth, and that he’s continuing to advocate for more medical resources.

“Like a lot of communities, we’re not able to get every health-care professional that we’d like to have,” he said.

“They say there’s this nine-month wait — it’s because we don’t have enough individuals.”

Green candidate Chris Aikman said he would look for the root cause of the mental-health trouble, which isn’t always solved by hospitals or drugs.

Aikman, a former astrophysicist, said he’s running because the other campaigns aren’t addressing environmental issues, though he admits he’s unlikely to win.

One of his priorities is the proposed Raven Coal Mine, located near Buckley Bay, which proponents say could generate jobs and boost the local economy. The Green party opposes the mine entirely because of its environmental harm, Aikman said.

McRae is advocating patience.

“The concerns being raised are ones I have, too,” McRae said. “At the same time, there has to be [an environmental assessment] process. And let’s not prejudge the process.”

The NDP have proposed strengthening the environmental assessment by turning it into a joint review panel with the federal government.

But the party also wants to cancel B.C.’s equivalency agreement with the federal government for joint review panels, saying cases like the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline should be decided by a B.C.-only process.

The NDP won’t formally oppose the Raven Coal Mine project before the environmental assessment is complete, but Dycke said the potential damage from the mine could endanger 600 long-term jobs in the shellfish industry, in exchange for only limited mining jobs.

“This community is saying the cost is far too high, and in the end, the math just doesn’t add up,” Dycke said. “It’s not in our best interests.”

While the candidates battle it out — also running is B.C. Conservative Diane Hoffmann, a consultant on aging who has a PhD in theology — Lawrence remains on a waiting list for counselling. She admits it was tough to stand in front of her school and discuss such an emotional issue.

She has decided to support the NDP — “the lesser of two evils” — based on its mental-health policy, but said that overall, she’s not a fan of that party or the Liberals.

“To ask the question was a very freeing release,” she said.

“Listening to the answer was almost harder, because nobody gave me a sufficient answer.”

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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