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Psychiatrist who treated Devon Freeman says teen's suicidal thoughts seemed fleeting

An Indigenous teen who was found dead near his group homeexpressed "fleeting thoughts" of suicide when he was frustrated or angry, but these feelings didn't appear to last, the boy's psychiatrist told a coroner's inquest Wednesday. Dr.
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The Lynwood Charlton Centre group home in Hamilton, Ont., Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power

An Indigenous teen who was found dead near his group homeexpressed "fleeting thoughts" of suicide when he was frustrated or angry, but these feelings didn't appear to last, the boy's psychiatrist told a coroner's inquest Wednesday.

Dr. Roberto Sassi was working at the child and youth mental health program at McMaster Children’s Hospital when he began giving regular outpatient treatment to Devon Freeman in the fall of 2014. Those appointments were almost monthly at first, but grew less frequent over the years, with the last one roughly a week before the teen went missing, the inquest heard.

While Freeman, who was 13 when they began working together, occasionally made statements related to suicide, he also appeared to dismiss them quickly and discussed plans for the future, the psychiatrist said.

“My understanding was that when he was not in the midst of an argument like this he will not present with suicidal thoughts," Sassi told the inquest.

“To my knowledge, at no point was there ongoing hopelessness or hopelessness or chronic or persistent suicidal thoughts.”

Freeman also never reached the level where he needed to be hospitalized due to an imminent threat to his safety or that of others, Sassi said. He noted there is a "high threshold" to invoke the Mental Health Act, the legislation that allows psychiatric facilities to admit people with mental disorders against their will for the purpose of treatment under specific circumstances.

The inquest has heard Freeman went missing from the Lynwood Charlton Centre group home in the Flamborough area of Hamilton on Oct. 7, 2017 and his body was found on the property in April 2018. An autopsy determined he died by hanging.

Jurors have also heard Freeman attempted suicide earlier in 2017 and had a history of suicidal thoughts and self-harm while in a residential program in 2015 and 2016, culminating in another reported suicide attempt.

The psychiatrist said he was aware of an incident in which Freeman was taken to the hospital's emergency room in November 2015 due to suicidal behaviour, as it was reported to him by hospital staff.

But he said he learned about Freeman's suicide attempt in November 2016 through the coroner's inquest, and about the May 2017 attempt through the media when Freeman's body was discovered.

Since Sassi met with Freeman less frequently and on a non-urgent basis, the doctor said he would have expected group home staff or a caregiver to inform him at the next appointment. That didn't happen, he said.

The psychiatrist's last appointment with Freeman was Sept. 28, 2017, the inquest heard. Sassi's notes on the appointment said there was "no evidence of suicidal or homicidal ideation," and he found Freeman could continue his treatment while living at the home.

In cross-examination, he said his assessment only reflected Freeman's state of mind at the time of the appointment. 

Sassi said that if he had known about Freeman's suicide attempts, it would have increased his concern about the possibility of another attempt. It would also have prompted some discussion to obtain more information and compare the teen's state of mind at the time of the incidents and during the appointment, he said.

However, given how much time had passed since the attempts, Sassi said he wasn't sure his conclusion would have changed.

The inquest is set to resume Thursday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2022.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press

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