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Access to mental-health services a factor in B.C. teen’s death, lawyer tells coroner’s inquest

The jury at a coroner's inquest examining the death of a teen who leaped from a parkade after escaping a psychiatric unit should consider the availability of mental-health services in smaller B.C. communities, says a lawyer involved in the case.

Jacob Setah was 18 years old when he died in June, 2014. He had been involuntarily committed to Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops less than a week before his death but escaped from a secure ward by breaking a window.

He ran to the top of a nearby parkade and jumped to his death less than an hour later, moments after an RCMP officer tried to subdue him with a taser.

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An inquest into the teen's death began this week in Kamloops.

Douglas King, the lawyer representing the Yunesit'in (Stone) Government, said in an interview on Tuesday that the First Nation would like the jury to examine the level of care available inside the community. Mr. Setah was spending part of his time on the Yunesit'in reserve outside Williams Lake and the rest in Williams Lake itself, Mr. King said.

Mr. Setah ultimately had to be transported from Williams Lake to Kamloops because there isn't a designated psychiatric facility in Williams Lake, he said. Kamloops, located about 300 kilometres south of Williams Lake, had the closest facility available.

Mr. King said Mr. Setah's family did not see him the day he died and could not contact him while he was in hospital.

"He was relatively sheltered growing up on reserve and very, very close to his family. So taking him out of his home community, bringing him to a hospital in a place he'd never been, with connections to nobody, was a really big shock to his system," the lawyer said.

"And I think the family feels like it was definitely a contributing factor for why he had his episode."

Mr. Setah's death will only make it more difficult to convince other members of the Yunesit'in to engage with the system, he said, adding he'd like to see an increase in outreach to reserves "so the onus isn't always on people to leave their community to seek help, that to some degree they have people coming to them."

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Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Children's Representative, said she is closely following the inquest. While it cannot bring back a young life, she said, it might help prevent other youth from meeting a similar outcome.

B.C.'s Ministry of Health issued a statement that said mental-health services are offered in Williams Lake at multiple levels, including a community mental-health centre.

It said emergency mental-health services are available at Cariboo Memorial Hospital in Williams Lake, and renovations are under way to "improve the emergency department's ability to provide acute psychiatric treatment." The ministry said the Interior Health Authority also has a crisis response team for Williams Lake.

The ministry said it is common in any community for a patient who needs specialized care to be transferred for treatment.

Mr. King, who serves as the police accountability lawyer with Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society, also questioned why an RCMP officer chose to deploy a taser about 40 minutes after arriving on the scene. He said a crisis negotiator was en route and efforts were being made to contact the family.

"[Deploying the taser] should be a last resort. Because, logically, it either works and you've subdued the person and that ends the situation, or if it doesn't work, as happened here, you run the risk that the person is then going to jump and commit suicide," he said.

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"It's really forcing the hand and it's all or nothing."

The officer who deployed the taser was not charged. The Independent Investigations Office, in a report released last year, said it could not conclude he may have committed an offence. It said the officer believed Mr. Setah's behaviour had worsened and he was ready to jump. The weapon was deployed as the teen stepped down from the ledge to get a cigarette from another officer.

The taser had no effect and Mr. Setah jumped from the ledge moments later.

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