Mother murder trial casts light on failures of medical system

"Most people with mental illness are not violent. Most people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims.”

With the same composure he mustered throughout his son’s murder trial, Harry Grossmith offered some final words about the violent episode that shattered his family.

“Kate Gilchrist, my wife and my children’s mother, anchored our lives with love compassion and wisdom. My family, extended family and her many friends feel her absence deeply,” he told reporters Friday outside the Kelowna courthouse, after Justice Alison Beames deemed his son not criminally responsible for Gilchrist’s murder.

“How does one summarize the pain my family, including my son, has experienced? How does one encapsulate this loss in a rational way?

“I can’t, so I won’t. My family is satisfied with the verdict the court has rendered. It is my hope that with appropriate counselling and time my son will find his way to live a productive and useful life.”

He then left the courthouse and asked for privacy going forward.

While nothing can diminish what the Grossmiths suffered since Sept. 13, 2012, when their personal struggles made headlines, their public loss highlighted the destructive path mental illness can burn through family bonds and the systemic failures of the medical system.

Through the five-day trial, the basic facts of the case were never called into dispute.

Conor Grossmith, 26, admitted he entered his mother’s room as she lay in bed, and repeatedly hit her over the head with a hammer. She died nine days later in a Kelowna hospital, having never regained consciousness from the attack.

The question before Beames was whether Grossmith, who had been drinking heavily with his parents the night of the murder, was motivated by booze or in the throes of a psychotic state brought on by his pre-existing condition of bipolar disorder.

To reach the conclusion he was not criminally responsible, Beames was presented with psychiatric assessments, Grossmith’s history and records of his behaviours after the crime, which included an incident where he licked his mother’s blood from his hands as he was held in police cells.

Picking the most germane evidence from a mountain of medical history, both Crown and defence lawyers convincingly painted the picture of a disturbed young man who was a victim of a mental disorder.

The court heard that Grossmith had suffered psychotic episodes every September since 2009. On that first episode, he menaced his grandfather, threw a CD at his mother and attacked his lawyer, Joe Gordon.

In the years that followed, he was said to have never become that violent, but psychotic episodes continued to plague him, as did addictions.

He’d been in various forms of therapy to deal with both problems, in different institutions, and in and out of hospitals at moments when he lost control. In the weeks leading to the attack, the court heard his father had even made calls to health officials, pointing out that his son was “cycling up” and had started to behave strangely.

The family didn’t get the help they needed, which is all too common a scenario, said  Candace Geisbrecht, the Canadian Mental Health Association’s director of community engagement.

“Families reaching out for help and getting an inadequate response is too common in our community,” said Geisbrecht.

“Currently, 15 per cent of the health care burden is mental illness related, and mental health services get seven per cent of the funding.”

It’s a troublesome disparity that’s only getting worse, she explained, noting that there has been a gradual erosion of services for people with mental illness. “Particularly as we have more people aging, there’s more burden on the health care system.  And, when there’s a limited pool of funds, the help goes to physical health and crisis care.”

The question is then how to meet the needs of those who are facing mental illness because once they fall into the cracks in the system, the cost to address their needs sky-rockets.

“They’re only getting served once they’re in total crisis, and that’s where the most expensive services are,” she said.

Public education and early intervention are not funded, and those two elements can make the biggest difference in people’s lives.

Geisbrecht also stressed that the Grossmith case, though horrible, is not indicative of what all who are dealing with mental illness face.

“We grieve with the (Grossmith) family, but from a mental health promotion and awareness perspective, we’re concerned the public thinks that people with mental illness do things like this,” she said. “Most people with mental illness are not violent. Most people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims.”

If anything can come from the Grossmith trial, she said, it’s that those who feel impacted by the story reach out and start asking questions.

“The community services available are not addressing the needs of the people who use them and they’re not adequately resourced,” she said. “We have to demand better. Everyone has to raise their voice so, together, we can be heard.”

Meanwhile, Grossmith will once again be entrenched in the system.

The not guilty by reason of mental disorder verdict means that Grossmith will be sent to a psychiatric hospital in Coquitlam.

“The Criminal Code requires that the case come before the review board panel,” explained Crown counsel Frank Dubenski. “They’ll hold a hearing to determine his disposition, then further psychiatric analysis will be done.”

At that point, it will be decided whether Grossmith should be sent to the hospital or released. If he is released, said Dubenski, it will be on significant conditions.

If he isn’t, Grossmith will be subject of yearly reviews, until the board reaches the decision that he’s no longer a threat to the community.

“This is the best outcome for the family under the circumstances,” Dubenski said. “The community? We’ll see how the review board deals with him, what kind of treatment he gets and how long he’ll stay in hospital.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association will hold an event Dec. 1, highlighting the support services available in the community. And for those who would like to donate funds, go to the CMHA website


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