This story was plastered above the fold in yesterday’s print edition of the Toronto Star:
Gleb Alfyorov thought he was going to a hospital for help.
So did the judge who ordered a 30-day psychiatric evaluation of the Pickering teen.
“I want you to be with a team of specialists — nurses and doctors who can meet with you and talk with you about things,” Judge Susan MacLean told the troubled 16-year-old who had been convicted of breaking his older sister’s nose.
That night, a police cruiser dropped Gleb at Syl Apps Youth Centre in Oakville, a jail which was not set up to assess or treat him.
Gleb was strip-searched, interviewed and directed to cell 12. A stunning series of miscommunications kept him from receiving help.
Twenty-nine days later, he hanged himself from a ceiling grate in his cell with his black shoelaces. It was five days after his 17th birthday.
Essentially, the story tells of a sixteen-year-old boy who had some serious (and undiagnosed) mental health issues and a history of substance abuse. Instead of being properly diagnosed and treated, various experts and professionals handled Gleb Alfyorov like an animal until he finally committed suicide in despair. It is ugly and depressing reading, especially if you’re a health care professional, because it appears, first, that no one bothered to look at Gleb Alfyorov’s chart, and second, no one could be bothered to act as his advocate. It’s pretty clear no one had actual responsibility for Gleb in any meaningful way.
In truth, he had three strikes against him anyway.
He had a mental illness, and we all know how people with mental illness are valued, even by health care professionals.
He was a drug abuser, and we all know about the perception — and some of us believe it — that drug abusers are scum and get what they deserve.
He had a criminal record, and criminals are no better than animals. Right?
In short, he didn’t have a chance. To health care professionals, people like Gleb Alfyorov don’t matter much. We might officially protest it ain’t so, but we know it’s true. They aren’t important, and they are a dime a dozen. They’re difficult, hard-ass cases. They don’t have the appeal of breast cancer patients or sick babies. Who really gives a shit, right?
The testimony at the coroner’s inquest will no doubt involve a lot of hand-wringing and complacency at the same time; some will and blame the victim and others will blame circumstance and everyone will avoid anything that looks like the acceptance of responsibility. Witnesses will say “the system” killed him, when in fact “the system” is actually composed of individuals whose action or inaction contributed to Gleb’s death.
When completed, the inquest will recommend some systemic changes which will hopefully improve a deeply awful system. But in the end, I think none of that will matter, until we get it through our thick skulls that young men like Gleb aren’t disposable, but human beings intrinsically worthy of being treated with respect and dignity. And no coroner’s inquest can change that attitude.