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Victoria man's 85 convictions highlight links between brain injury, homelessness, crime

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A Victoria man’s life of crime has turned into one of survival, hope and advocacy amid ongoing conversations in the community about how best to tackle public safety matters.

Derrick Forsyth has 85 criminal convictions. The ex-offender in his 50s says he was caught up in a vicious cycle of doing time in prison, getting out, and repeating the cycle.

A single diagnosis was his turning point to a better life.

“It’s not the best thing to say, you know, 'Thank god for a brain injury,'” says Forsyth. “God kicked me in the head and said, 'That’s it, you’re done. You gotta smarten up now or you’re dead.'”

The catalyst was a car accident in 2009, but he wonders if it started in childhood after taking hits in boxing.

“By the time I was in Grade 9, I was in trouble. I had dropped out of school. My anger issues were off the charts,” he says. “The behaviour wasn’t caused by drug use, not at that young age.”

He was treated while serving time in prison – first in a hospital, then given supports through a social worker, therapist, speech therapist. Forsyth says he had to relearn basic tasks such as shopping, ordering items online.

“My brain was like, seriously, somebody pressed reset.”

After the car accident, he remembers feeling lost, living on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, spending his day feeding an addiction to drugs.

“I didn’t know what to do and so I committed a crime on purpose to go to jail to get help,” he remembers.

Forsyth says he was diagnosed in prison when correctional workers noticed him behaving differently from his past behaviours observed in the justice system.

“Hearing the voices was the scariest part,” he says of his symptoms.

More than a decade later, he lives in his own home, sober. He’s a support worker through Victoria’s Cridge Centre for the Family – one of many agencies he credits with helping reshape his life.

“I swear to you right now, without those people I wouldn’t be here. The number one thing is the housing.”

BRAIN INJURY LINKS TO HOMELESSNESS, CRIME

“Nobody is born [and] wants to sleep in a dumpster or on a park bench,” adds Forsyth. “So when you see a person like that – you have to ask yourself why?”

According to the Nanaimo Brain Injury Society, research shows 50 per cent of the homeless population has a brain injury. The rate of incidence for those incarcerated is also high – about 80 to 90 per cent.

“When we’re trying to address these issues in our community, we need to include brain injury as part of the equation,” says executive director Kix Citton.

She spoke with CTV News following the mayor’s response to a shooting in a downtown homeless encampment that sent one person to hospital with serious injuries.

“Municipal governments across this province need help and that help means dealing with the significant mental health, addictions, brain injury, homelessness crisis in our streets,” said Leonard Krog following the March 12 incident. “We need firm announcements. We need secure facilities. We need treatment.”

Brain injury researchers and advocates agree, joining a chorus that’s calling on all levels of government to act now.

“You can see how when someone isn’t able to maintain their employment anymore because of a brain injury, or isn’t able to maintain their housing, or isn’t able to maintain those supportive relationships because of the function of their brain. This isn’t a moral failing,” says Citton.

A member of senior administration with the B.C. Brain Injury Association and clinical counsellor, Janelle Breese Biagoni says not everyone with a brain injury will become violent or develop an addiction issue. But she says she’s never met anyone who didn’t have challenges with their mental health after a brain injury – with depression and anxiety being paramount.

"If it’s unaddressed, certainly people have addiction challenges sometimes. It comes from prescription medications. Sometimes it comes from ‘I’ve gone from hopeful to hopeless and I’m self-medicating just to try and get through the day," she adds. "They may lose their job or they just can’t return to work."

Biagoni is working with the Cowichan-Malahat-Langford member of parliament to push Bill C-277 to develop a national strategy to support and improve brain injury awareness, prevention and treatment.

“This isn’t an NDP problem. This isn’t a Liberal problem. This is everyone’s problem,” Biagoni says.

“The health authorities need to begin speaking together and come to a consensus of what are the best practices? What are the best services and supports needed? How are we going to provide those in a timely fashion and not leave people to struggle in the aftermath?"

Both advocates, Citton and Biagoni, say people who’ve experienced a brain injury can thrive. The ones who do are given access to services and support.

'I DID SOMETHING STUPID'

After Forsyth’s release from Metchosin’s William Head Institution in December 2011, he cringes over one final mistake.

“Within 10 days of being out, I did something stupid. I went to get a cellphone and while I was getting my cellphone and giving the guy my name and everything, I stole his phone.”

It was Dec. 22, a day he doesn’t forget. The one he resolved to never do it again.

“I stole from the community and so now for the last 10 years I’ve been giving back,” he says.

Derrick still faces symptoms of the brain injury, including extreme fatigue. He was told that may never go away. He says dealing with the injury has taught him how to be more giving, understanding and compassionate.

He helps bring a senior to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings once a week. He volunteers. He’s passionate about sharing his story in support of people like him through documentaries, guest speaker sessions.

And he says, he’s at peace with himself. 

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