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Kings North MLA’s experience leads to advocating for province-wide mental health court access

Kings North MLA and Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative (PC) Party leadership candidate John Lohr is advocating for access to mental health courts across the province. He lost his son, Caleb, who was enrolled in mental health court in Dartmouth, following a tragic accident in 2014.
Kings North MLA and Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative (PC) Party leadership candidate John Lohr is advocating for access to mental health courts across the province. He lost his son, Caleb, who was enrolled in mental health court in Dartmouth, following a tragic accident in 2014. - Kirk Starratt

“He slowly came back to the young man that we knew."

KENTVILLE, NS - John Lohr has a deeply personal reason behind advocating for mental health court access across Nova Scotia.

The Kings North MLA and Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative (PC) Party leadership candidate and his wife, Heather, realized they had a problem with their son, Caleb, before he ever got into trouble with the law.

Caleb was experiencing psychosis and hearing voices. He believed he had telepathy and could hear other people’s thoughts.

Lohr said they quickly got Caleb in to see a psychiatrist.

“I guess maybe we didn’t really understand how serious the problem was because he went out to see some friends and then committed several crimes in Halifax of break and enter and then tried to escape by canoe across the northwest arm, which made the national news,” Lohr said.

Caleb believed he had to escape and go survive somewhere in the wilderness, Lohr said.

Caleb surrendered and was apprehended by police without further incident, which was fortunate. At the time, Caleb was carrying a large sword he had taken from one of the houses.

Caleb’s actions seemed strange to police. He had no prior record at the time.

Because he was already seeing a psychiatrist and because the incidents occurred in Halifax, Caleb qualified for the Nova Scotia Mental Health Court Program, which operates out of Dartmouth. Lohr said that although Caleb didn’t make it to the point of completion, the mental health court program was a huge comfort to the family.

“It was a great comfort to us to know that he would be in a system that would mandate a treatment plan and would not result in a criminal record if he successfully completed that treatment plan,” Lohr said.

Read more from the Court Monitored Mental Health Program series:

• Kings County father hopes son with addiction, mental health issues sentenced to federal time will accept help he needs

• ‘It’s a program I’m really proud to be involved with’: Kings County lawyer

Impact of marijuana

After Caleb was charged and came home, Lohr said it was sort of like “a watershed moment.” Caleb stayed home and stopped using marijuana. It was only when he stopped using it that the Lohr family began to realize the impact that the drug had on his mental health.

“He slowly came back to the young man that we knew,” Lohr said.

They researched symptoms of marijuana withdrawal and observed Caleb experiencing them. Lohr said it’s established in scientific literature that there is a certain percentage of people under the age of 25 who will be negatively impacted psychologically by using marijuana.

He said the medical community across the country is “shocked” that the Trudeau government didn’t follow the recommendation to establish a minimum legal age of 25 in its initiative to legalize pot. Lohr said he has become an advocate for this as well.

Caleb, who was 21 years old, died after an accidental fall at Cape Split in 2014. Lohr said Caleb’s psychiatrist had recommended that Caleb start hiking. Caleb made what Lohr described as “an ill-advised decision” to hike out to the end of Cape Split around 3 p.m. on a late November day. It was wet and would have been pitch black when Caleb arrived at the end of the trail. Evidence showed that Caleb slipped and fell to his death.

Mental health courts

Lohr said his family’s experience made him an advocate for establishing mental health courts across the province. Lohr said that if someone meets the qualifications, mental health court is the right place for them. Jail, he adds, is “a terrible place” to send someone with mental health issues.

“I believe that having the option of mental health court will divert people out of jail and into treatment, which will save our society money, ultimately, and save us from ruined lives,” Lohr said. “To have that available to families throughout the province is certainly a goal of mine.”

Lohr has advocated in the Legislature for mental health court access across the province on several occasions. He says the mental health court engages the type of professional help people need for a truly effective court-mandated treatment plan.

“It’s just unfortunate that we never got to that point through the circumstances that we went through,” Lohr said.

The Nova Scotia Mental Health Court Program currently operates out of Dartmouth and a Court Monitored Mental Health Program runs in Kentville.

There’s also a Court Monitored Drug Treatment Program in Kentville, which Lohr said is a wonderful thing for someone who is an addict and can get a court-mandated treatment plan instead of being sent to jail.

Lohr’s understanding is that the current Liberal government is working toward making access to mental health courts across Nova Scotia a reality, although he isn’t sure if it will be accomplished prior to the next election or not.

Lohr said the program in Kentville is not funded like the one in Halifax. It involves several agencies partnering and using existing resources to make it work. He’d like to see the Kentville program be better funded and the Halifax model rolled out across the province.

“I have a lot of respect for the people here in the Valley who have decided to make it work,” Lohr said.

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