Like most Canadians, I was shocked and saddened by the video footage released this week showing how Ashley Smith was duct taped to an airplane seat and forcibly injected with pharmaceutical tranquilizers to control her behavior. Ashley Smith’s story illustrates the caverns and pitfalls in Canada’s mental health system and in particular how it relates to youth.
Ashley had trouble in school. Starting when she was 10 years old, she became increasingly difficult to manage. She engaged in inappropriate behavior and had been suspended many times. Ashley committed several offenses during her teen years including assault, insulting people on public transit and making harassing telephone calls. She was funneled through an alternative measures program and placed on probation. Her adoptive parents also took her to a psychiatrist to rule out mental health issues. She then underwent a battery of assessments and the results indicated personality disorders but not depression. She was also diagnosed with ‘oppositional defiance’ disorder. Eventually, Smith would breach her probation and end up incarcerated.
Smith’s story is one of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The expectations at the New Brunswick Youth Centre required that Ashley conform to expected norms. The system was predicated on the ability of inmates to improve their status and rise through the hierarchy. Ashley did not function well in these settings. Ashley’s behavior became increasingly challenging for institutional staff to handle. As she escalated, so did the consequences for her behavior with her eventually being sentenced to secure custody. When she would be discharged, she would do something else and end up back in.
When you watch the video of her on the airplane, you can clearly see she is shackled to the seat. She does not appear to be struggling at all. Then, for some unknown reason, her hands are duct-taped. The video of her receiving the forced injections is even more disturbing. She is faced with guards and staff in gas masks who don’t treat her with basic human dignity.
One really has to wonder why everyone seemed to be so afraid of this young woman. Clearly the only way they could deal with her was to treat her as sub-human. Why were they all so afraid of her that she needed 2 spit hoods? It seemed like they were trying to ‘break’ her in order to get her to comply. The feminist in me is peaked as I wonder why a system would be so overwhelmed by one young woman with oppositional defiance disorder? Perhaps people working with her felt the need to for her to behave properly, like a ‘lady’ instead of an out of control hooligan.
What I also find interesting is that Ashley was adopted. I am really beginning to wonder if anything good comes from adoption. Sure, it works out for the parents who want a baby but what about that child or the birth mother? Children need to see themselves reflected in those around them. I get that there are situations where adoption is the only answer for children but I think it is an imperfect answer. Certainly open adoption is more preferable than the old system of secrecy and denial. I do wonder what affect adoption had on Ashley.
Regardless of the circumstances of Ashley’s adoption, what happened to her in the system is unconscionable and unforgivable. As a society, we must start to put resources into people instead of profits. Our politicians need to step up and do the right thing and create a mental health strategy for our country. Even though Ashley did not have a diagnosed mental health issue she still needed therapy. Clearly something happened to this young woman, some kind of trauma, to cause her behavior to escalate. There had to be some place in our world where Ashley would have fit. One thing we know for sure – the prison system was not the place.