Mother 'relieved' as inquest announced into daughter's death in N.B. psychiatric unit

Hillary Hooper was 27 when she died by suicide in December 2020 at Saint John Regional Hospital. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick - image credit)
Hillary Hooper was 27 when she died by suicide in December 2020 at Saint John Regional Hospital. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

An inquest into the death of Hillary Hooper will be held this winter, more than two years after she died by suicide, according to the Office of the Chief Coroner of New Brunswick.

Hooper, 27, was a patient in the psychiatric unit at the Saint John Regional Hospital when she died in December 2020.

"The presiding coroner and a jury will hear evidence from witnesses to determine the facts surrounding this death," said a government news Thursday. "The jury will have the opportunity to make recommendations aimed at preventing deaths under similar circumstances in the future."

The inquest is scheduled for March 13 to 18, 2023, at the Saint John Law Courts.

Hooper had been in the hospital's psychiatric unit before. After a November 2020 appointment with a psychiatrist, the St. George woman drove to the hospital, where she attempted suicide.

Submitted by Patty Borthwick
Submitted by Patty Borthwick

Once her physical condition stabilized, she was moved to the hospital's secure psychiatric wing. But three weeks later she succeeded in taking her own life.

For Patty Borthwick, Hooper's mother, this inquest is a long-time coming. She's been fighting for an investigation into her daughter's death for two years now.

In May 2021, she said was promised copies of reports and documents by high-ranking hospital officials at a meeting, but instead was only provided with the coroner's report.

Bill Wilkerson, the co-founder of Mental Health International, sent a letter to Premier Blaine Higgs in June 2021 asking for a provincial investigation.

In response to a right to information request, CBC was sent 52 pages of documents in summer 2021 relating to Hooper's death. Names, dates, times and most other pertinent information had been removed.

At the time, Borthwick called the documents a "disappointing waste of paper," and said what was left in the documents wasn't very helpful. She also said she wasn't given a heads-up by the health authority before the documents were released to the media.

The Horizon documents released to CBC made note of two recommendations that arose from the internal review of Hooper's death.

One was to create a safe place in the regional hospital — either in the emergency department or the psychiatric unit — for those in a mental health crisis.

The second was to alter the design of door frames with a target timeframe being April 2021.

'For our family's peace of mind'

Borthwick said she's known for months about the inquest after being advised by the coroner, but she had to keep the news private until an official announcement was made. She said even though she knew this was coming, it was still hard to believe it would actually happen.

She hopes the inquest will answer some questions that haven't been answered about her daughter's last hours. Borthwick said she'd like to know even simple things, like what time Hooper was found.

She said the family doesn't want money and doesn't want to point fingers or prove that someone was negligent. She said the answers she wants are "just for a mom's heart, just for our family's peace of mind."

"I think this inquest is going to be good," said Borthwick. "Because all the dumb questions that probably don't matter to anybody else in the world but me — I'll get some answers."

Inquest a relief, mother says

Borthwick said people sent hundreds of letters in January to the government asking for a change in legislation. She wants people who die by suicide in a hospital to be afforded an automatic inquest, instead of family having to fight for one. Borthwick said all they can do now is try to save other families from what she's gone through.

She said that the inquest is a relief and getting some answers might allow her to start healing.

"She's still sitting here in my home, her ashes, because I said until we have answers, until we have peace, I'm not putting her in the ground with all these unanswered things," said Borthwick.

"So now, we get this inquest behind us … then maybe we can finally put that girl to peace."

If you are in crisis or know someone who is, here is where to get help:

CHIMO hotline: 1-800-667-5005  / http://www.chimohelpline.ca

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868,  Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566