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Friday, July 23, 2010

Schizophrenia, drugs were his demons

July 23, 2010

Aron Firman was a son, a brother, a friend.

He was also a troubled young man, whose life was increasingly being taken over by schizophrenia and drug use.

Four weeks after he died during a confrontation with OPP officers, his family is still coming to terms with the circumstances of his death.

All that's known, publicly, is what was in a terse news release from the province's Special Investigations Unit; the SIU is called in when a death or serious injury results during an interaction with police.

On June 24, around 5:30 p.m., officers were called to St. Marie Street group home where Aron lived. There was an altercation with another resident, and when police arrived, Aron became "combative" with officers, assaulting one of them.

One of the officers used a conductive energy weapon -- otherwise known as a Taser, after the company that manufactures the device -- on Aron.

At that point, according to the SIU, he became "unresponsive" and could not be revived in spite of the best efforts of the police officers on the scene.

Marcus Firman and his wife Christine Cowley were at a restaurant with Christine's son when police tracked Marcus down to give him the news his son was dead.

"To hear he may have assaulted a police officer ... it's difficult to draw a line between what Aron was, and what happened (with police)," says Marcus.

The incident is still under investigation by the SIU, and family members still don't know what happened that afternoon, aside from what they've picked up from third parties.

What Aron Firman was, according to friends and family, was a generally gentle individual, full of ideas and creativity.

Listening to Marcus and Christine retelling the story is clearly cathartic; but it's more than just the days that followed in the wake of Aron's death, or the days and weeks that led up to his fatal confrontation with police. It's also the months and years of living with an individual who has a mental illness -- and in that respect, it becomes a tale, both cautionary and inspiring, for others who may see similar patterns in a friend or family member.

Aron's symptoms of schizophrenia didn't begin to manifest themselves until his late teens, says Marcus.

After the break-up of his parents' marriage in 2002, Aron quit school in spite of good grades, especially in math and science.

Marcus found him a job in construction, and he excelled at it. But earning money brought other issues, such as recreational drug use.

He started to mess up. And then, as Christine says, "the TV started to talk to him."

That was the beginning of hearing other voices inside his head.

"Aron always had his idiosyncrasies; he would rub his hands together, for instance, but he would rub them until they were calloused," said Marcus. "But he'd been doing that since he was a baby, so I never really thought anything of it."

He could be artistic and creative, "but he gave up because he couldn't do what he wanted to do," said Marcus. "Whatever medium he was working with, he could not get whatever was in his head, out."

"He didn't think his work (art or writing) was good enough," added Christine.

When Aron began to live with Marcus and Christine, who were married in 2004, the couple started to clue in to Aron's obsessive compulsive disorder, and that it was much more than just "teenage angst." His compulsive behaviour had progressed to a point where he was self-harming; not suicidal, but cigarette burns to his arms and legs. There were appointments with doctors and specialists, and eventually, an assessment that identified Aron as paranoid schizophrenic.

Schizophrenia is characterized by a disintegration of the process of thinking, losing contact with reality. It can manifest as auditory hallucinations (hearing voices), paranoia, delusions; a person with schizophrenia may appear to be incoherent or unintelligible, and be physically agitated.

Drugs -- both recreational and prescription -- can cause, or worsen, the symptoms.

It is frequently confused with dissociative identity disorder, or as it's commonly referred, multiple personality disorder.

Depending on what statistics you're reading, schizophrenia is prevalent in one in 100 people, to one in 200.

There are a variety of factors that could lead to an individual becoming schizophrenic, including genetics, social causes, and drug use; a study released earlier this month suggested it could be linked to defects in proteins in the junctions between nerve cells.

Treatment includes medication, or psychotherapy.

After Aron's diagnosis, the decision was made to take him to the mental health centre in Penetanguishene. "He didn't like it, but there was also a certain security to it for him, and there were rules he had to obey," said Christine.

After four months, Aron returned to Collingwood. He qualified for ODSP and moved into his own apartment, while the couple searching his condition.

Even Aron was convinced he could control his symptoms, and every few weeks would come up with a new scheme to handle his schizophrenia. But it was clear it wasn't working -- especially as he would fall into the frequent pattern of smoking dope.

He also spent time at Georgianwood, a residential program attached to the mental health centre for people with both a substance use problem and a mental illness.

When he came out, the family discovered they couldn't give him money, or give him things that could be hocked or swapped; invariably, the money would be spent on pot.

His legal troubles drew the attention of Immigration Canada; Aron wasn't officially a Canadian citizen -- he had been born in England, but the family moved to the Middle East when he was eight weeks old and had lived in Canada for 20 years. He also started to have run-ins with the law: break-ins or thefts.

Because of his criminal charges, Immigration Canada began the process of deciding whether to deport Aron back to England.

Becoming the focus of the authorities only served to increase his paranoia. He was convinced he was under surveillance. The 'voices' fed on his paranoia, or made him delusional. But they never drove him to violence -- which is why the family can't understand the circumstances that led to his death.

"We've got far more questions than answers, and we don't know if we'll ever get to the truth," said Marcus.


Anonymous said...

This "backgrounder" of course tells us nothing about whether the taser killed Aron. The autopsy report has not yet (on July 24) been made public and the Ontario Special Investigations Unit has yet to make any public statement - one month after Aron died. (Just 2 days later, the autopsy was completed)
But this information does prepare us for a whitewash of the taser:
Aron was (a) suffering from schizophrenia (+ various other psychiatric labels), (b) had a history of drug abuse, so the taser may not have been the cause of his death ...

EXCEPT, schizophrenia doesn't kill and there is no indication of Aron having anything like a lethal dose when he died (he was in a group-home so unlikely to have access to dtreet drugs).
In brief, his parents (mother and step-father) would be well-advised to seek legal advice about homicide by the police officers and, particularly, the responsibility of the corporation manufacturing the weapon, since it looks as if the plice were surprised that Aron went into a fatal collapse immediately after he was tasered.

Such court action may become, I believe, a major deterrent that will contribute to the end of taser use by Canadian police officers as well as permitting the truth to at least partly emerge.

Anonymous said...

I am the mother of Daniel Sylvester. Number 490 on this list. My son was also schizophrenic. He was also very kind and gentle. I can relate to the questions of the family about him being "assaultive to the officers". My son was retreating, and tried to shut the door, and the officers that tased him shoved the door opened, and came in and tased him. Then, they said he assulted them, and that they were fighting for their lives and that was why they used two tasers on him. One on his right nipple and one on his cheek. My son died right after he was tasered, but the coroner has his death as "pending". The coroner told me tasers don't kill people, so it had to be something else. My son is a number. Thank you tnt for including my son on your list of people who have died after they were tased. I know the sheriffs killed my son with a taser but it is ok, because they say my son assaulted them.
My son also had a family that loved him very much in spite of his schizophrenia.
He is especially missed by me, his mother, and by his sister, and her little son, and by his brother. Also his uncle, and four cousins. But also by the community by people who knew him as gentle, kind and quiet.