For 14 years Elenore Sturko carried with her the memory of the tragic death of Todd Marr.
In the hours before he died in 2009, Marr had been taken to Peace Arch Hospital in obvious distress, but had not been kept there, as there was insufficient information for him to be admitted and treated under the Mental Health Act.
In her capacity as an RCMP officer, Sturko knew that Marr was a risk for self-harm and that he had been released, in her view, prematurely.
Sadly, she was there when the distraught young man died, after running into the path of an oncoming vehicle in South Surrey.
It was an image of suffering she hadn’t been able to erase from her mind, she told Peace Arch News.
“I wished we could have saved Todd,” she said.
Last Wednesday (March 8) Sturko, now South Surrey MLA – and BC Liberal Shadow Minister for Mental Health, Addictions, and Recovery – introduced a private members bill aimed at averting similar tragedies.
If passed, the Mental Health Amendment Act, 2023 would require physicians or nurse practitioners to gather further information on a person’s psychological history as part of the process of considering whether to involuntarily admit and treat someone under the Mental Health Act.
By reaching out to those with close knowledge of an individual’s situation – which could include family members or first responders – physicians will gain valuable background information to support decisions, Sturko said, which would improve mental health treatment outcomes and mitigate the risk of self-harm.
“I know that Todd’s family could have provided information that would have helped,” Sturko added.
“Dealing with the aftermath of what happened in 2009, in the beginning I felt a lot of anger,” she admitted.
“It was a journey for me. Over time I did more research, and came to the realization that doctors and nurses can only make decisions based on the tools that are available to them.”
She noted that requiring doctors and nurses to reach out to friends, relatives and others with firsthand knowledge of the individual’s situation will fill a significant gap in B.C.’s mental health care system – ensuring doctors have all the information and context necessary when they are making the potentially life-saving decision to certify someone.
Sturko said she is hopeful that MLAs on both sides of the legislature will pass her bill, realizing it serves a common purpose.
“Even if the government chooses to ignore my bill and introduce one of their own like it, that does the same things, I won’t mind,” she said. “No hard feelings.”
In making the announcement of her bill in the legislature, Sturko was supported by community advocates and Marr’s parents, Lorraine and Chuck, plus family members of Vancouver Police Const. Nicole Chan, who took her own life in 2019.
Chan was on leave from the Vancouver Police Department while she dealt with mental health challenges and awaited the outcome of an internal sexual assault complaint.
Both Marr and Chan had been admitted to hospital with suicidal thoughts shortly before their respective deaths and a recently concluded inquest into Chan’s case recommended “better communication” between health-care providers, police and hospital physicians when treating patients with mental health emergencies.
“Todd’s case and Nicole’s inspired me to introduce this legislation,” Sturko said. “Hopefully it will help prevent similar tragedies and make a difference so that we can have the best outcomes.”
BC Green Party House Leader Adam Olsen, who watched Sturko’s announcement, said his party will review the proposed bill, but also signalled support.
“I think we should be moving to make this amendment,” he said. “(What) MLA Sturko has done here today is given us something to talk about and we should be moving to ensure that British Columbians receive the help when they need.”
Premier David Eby said his government is willing to look at any measures that could give physicians or nurses additional information when making that difficult decision about whether to hospitalize someone in crisis.
“These are obviously very complicated things,” he said. He added that the proposal could come with unintended consequences.
“But I certainly thank the opposition member for bringing this forward and for giving voice for those families facing this crisis,” he said.
Sturko said she and the families had left the legislature feeling happy that a positive step had been taken in memory of their loved ones.
She noted that she and Marr’s parents had only connected – through mutual acquaintances – the week before the legislation was introduced.
“It was incredible to be in the legislature with them – it’s been very healing for me,” she said.
“They’re wonderful, loving people, and I’ve gotten to know Todd through them – what a great person he was, what a great athlete and student.
“Instead of the terrible image I’d had, now, in my office, I have a beautiful, smiling photo of him,” she said.
“I’m so grateful for the inspiration of Todd’s life.”
– with files from Wolfgang Depner