GUEST BLOG: Tony Stevens – my brother Nicky Stevens did not need to die

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My brother was ill. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 20 years old and he committed suicide one month before his twenty-second birthday.

He waded into the Waikato River on March 9, 2015, after absconding from the Henry Bennetts mental health centre at Waikato Hospital while on unescorted leave.

But it was not inevitable. His death could have been prevented – correction: should have been prevented.

Those with the legal responsibility for his care failed to treat him with empathy, ignored his family’s concerns, miscarried their own ‘carefully’ devised care plan, and seemingly abandoned common sense. Maybe they just didn’t care enough.

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Nicky was placed in Henry Bennetts after receiving surgery for slashing his wrists. He was already under the Mental Health Act meaning he had to have court ordered medication every fortnight.

And that’s where the problems begin. His downward spiral into suicide may never have begun had his community ‘carers’ at Hauora Waikato been proactive about his medication. These are the people who were responsible for ensuring he received said medicine.

They waited for him to come to them. Nicky. The young man who like many other people suffering from mental illness wanted nothing to do with prescribed drugs. He hated it – it dumbed down his imagination. Of course after a while he stop turning up. He went more than six weeks without the drugs that kept his schizophrenia manageable and enabled him to engage in society meaningfully.

His community nurse made no effort to go to Nicky in order to provide the medication and worse, my parents were never contacted despite being listed as the next of kin and in fact, pleaded with Hauora Waikato to update them if they had any difficulty reaching him.

I want to go on, I want to tell you how he wasn’t noticed missing for hours after escaping the Henry Bennett centre, and about how his family pleaded with psychologists not to give him unescorted leave, I want to tell about his musicianship and about how he cared deeply for the environment; I want to discuss his powerful soul and his gentle nature.

But this article, if you can call it that, is really about preventable deaths and how they are commonplace in New Zealand’s mental health system.

I’ve taken an age to get to the crux of my story and that is a cardinal sin in journalism. But I felt it was vital you gain familiarity with the well of pain and frustration I am writing this from first.

Since the day I had to break the news to my mother that her youngest son was dead my family has been flooded with similar stories of families who have lost loved ones to negligence in our mental health facilities.

One woman hung herself on curtain drapes in the ‘secure’ unit of Henry Bennetts; another woman was released from care on a Henry Bennett psychiatrist’s recommendation despite heavy protest from her family and killed herself within a fortnight; a police officer I know personally admitted they received alerts frequently about missing persons from Henry Bennetts – it’s routine and rarely taken seriously. The incidents are commonplace and not restricted to Hamilton, but the Henry Bennett centre is infamous.

These stories speak of a rotten culture that has infested our mental health services. A culture characterised by inconsistency, indifference, arrogance and a poorly camouflaged disregard for family input, all enabled by poor hiring practices, even poorer resourcing, and complicit mental health legislation.

The Mental Health Act itself mentions very little about the rights of families and even patients, and instead is loaded with clauses designed to minimize the liability of health professionals and organisations.

The result is an endless tapestry of bureaucracy designed to limit any liability that can be directed at our public health services and place outcomes like Nicky’s firmly in the “unavoidable” category.

The comments section on a petition I am running challenging the Waikato District Health Board to fund my family’s legal representation is filled with comments expressing no faith in our mental health system, and sadly many people have said that they too have lost loved ones in very similar circumstances.

And then there is the total media embargo on the word ‘suicide’, which severely limits the level of discussion we have about people taking their own lives. If you don’t believe me google ‘suicide in New Zealand’ – you won’t find any actual stories about people committing suicide, those are called ‘unsuspicious deaths’.

I’m sorry to say it but New Zealand simply is not equipped for helping people with mental illness and their families.

We need change. What else can I say? It needs to happen right at the top and permeate all the way down to the idiotic smoking bans that put mental health inpatients out on a public street with zero supervision.

The Mental Health Act needs…hell it needs to be tossed into a garbage compactor and replaced with something that reflects real human values like empathy, and simple aspirations like consistency, and includes families in decision-making processes concerning their families. Indeed, prominent research around mental health strongly advocates that families are vital in successfully caring for individuals who are suffering. Oh and perhaps an emphasis on the fact that people are individuals, a one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to fail in a mental health framework – actually it’s fucked in any ‘framework’. We all think, act, speak, talk, do differently whether or not we are wrestling with our minds.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a universal structure, but within that any structure there needs to be room, plenty of room, for health professionals to assess, analyse, heck use their common-frenching-sense when determining how to care for an individual suffering from schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, whatever it may be.

Most of this article is comprised of personal thoughts, experiences and frustrations, backed up by the stories of dozens of Kiwi families who have suffered in the same way. I haven’t done any qualitative research…yet. But I’m pissed off, and I know the truth when it’s staring me in the face. And I’ve always known that our society is contained by the iron fist of bureaucracy.

Earlier I mentioned a petition. My father, accompanied by my mother and I, addressed the Waikato District Health Board at a public meeting and asked that they fund my family’s legal costs to the same extent they are funding their own – from the taxpayers pocket. From my father’s taxes, my mother’s, from yours – from ours. Whenever something like this (a family member dying as a result of suspected negligence) happens public health organisations have a battalion of taxpayer funded lawyers to make the whispers go away. But families like mine get nothing. If they want to challenge the bureaucracy they have to do it alone.

That’s what this petition is about: putting public pressure on the DHB to fund our legal costs in the search of independent truth and setting a precedent for other families to follow. And it won’t stop there. This is only the beginning. This has given me purpose. This is a rallying point and I am determined for it to be so. I have my whole life to grieve for my brother.

I miss you bro. I promise I’ll pick up any litter I see on the street.

Please sign the petition online and follow the Facebook Page.

 

Tony Stevens is a social activist who advocates for the rights of young workers. He recently lost his only brother to a malfunctioning mental health system and is desperate for change.

27 COMMENTS

  1. Poor you guys x . It deeply saddens me that people with mental illnesses are also crushed with poverty and dwindling resources . Resources better spent on CEO salaries and entitlements for their fine selves as they steer what were public amenities for the good of us all into the arms of off-shore ‘ investors ‘ it would seem .

    I say , start where the problem lies . In public underfunding, then work down to the roots the weeds .

    All foreign owned banks out ! Out now ! Today !
    All money lenders to be brought under scrutiny and heavily regulated .
    Immediate capital gains tax on domestic property .
    Write off all mortgage debt .
    Reinstatement of all resources, financial capital and amenities back into public ownership with appropriate ministries for administration .
    Hard labour prisons for those ministerial politicians who try to re-steal what was stolen back in the 1980’s .

    The above wish list is of course preposterous to even imagine . But what the list does illustrate clearly in my view is how our entire humanness , the very core of what we are as a species and that is as loving , empathetic and caring creatures is being destroyed by bankers , money lenders , money fetishists , financiers , currency traders and sundry other deeply mentally unwell sociopaths without one shred of conscience to be their guide .
    They must be brought down . The war is approaching . The New World War is approaching . The Earths new dominant species will be Bankers in human form and they’ll wreak havoc on us all .

    Your brother was a victim of under funding . Who underfunds health ? Who made record profits off us last year ? NZ’s top Exec’s get paid how much ? A 700 sqm or so Auckland house sold for 1.6 million ? And we all sit around crying like little children asking ” What’s going on ?? What can we do ? Boo hoo hoo . ”

    I hate to say this but your petition should be for how to organise 10,000 fit , healthy young people to storm the banks and burn the bastards down .

  2. I had a musician friend die; “suddenly”, last year while in custody of such an institution. One of his biggest fears was always falling into the hands of doctors.
    It’s a hazardous and poorly rewarded business for the most part; probably more substance abuse than even truck drivers (both sharing very irregular hours and social setting), no unions, and thousands of hours of practice before there is even a hope of payment. If it wasn’t for the music itself, I’d recommend that anyone stay well away.

  3. I lost my 15 year old son recently due to suicide. It could have been prevented. It should have been prevented. Our health/welfare systems are broken. Badly. No-one is looking to fix them. They are trying to make the problems worse, that is obvious.

    • @ Ann Johns . How dreadful for you . I’m very sorry . What pain you must suffer . Breaks my heart .

  4. The truth shines through in your writing. Your story echoes our own. Our mental health services are broken and we have been trying to tell authorities that for two years. Nobody is listening and it makes me sick that you have lost your brother to such negligence. We lost our son and brother due to severe negligence and many missed opportunities. Personal failings continue without being addressed.

  5. My son was hospitalised in Dunedin last year after attempting suicide. The health professionals were the opposite of the experiences outlined here. They were caring and kept us informed at every stage.

    Their care, concern and empathy was something to behold. In my experience they are genuinely driven by the need to care for their patients.

    It is rare in the health system that every single patient can be helped to the degree that others want them helped. As one of my sons nurses said to me ‘other than locking patients up 24/7, there is no easy answer to this. If they wang to harm themselves they will find a way.

    They did say drugs are a sticking plaster that delay the bad episodes.

    • Your comment ” If they want to harm themselves they will find a way.” demonstrates how woefully ignorant most are about suicide and why it happens. NO person who harms themselves deliberately wants to. The pain they suffer is unimaginable. Perhaps suicide is the only relief they can think of. I don’t know. I do know it’s so poorly understood by most practitioners and the general public.

  6. I really feel for you and support where you are coming from, I do however see how important it is going to be for you guys to have your facts straight when you do get to court. They don’t employ psychologists on the general adults side of HBC anymore only forensic, only psychiatrists would be the ones who gave your brother the unescorted leave. The no smoking policy they would argue that when they are deemed a risk they are escorted for smokes… and if he had escorted leave then you can’t say he escaped… they would simply say that he made a choice to abuse his leave and not come back… I wish you all of the best with your petition and hope that some really positive things come out of this sad situation xx

    • when Tony wrote this, he inadvertently used the words ‘psychiatrist’ and ‘psychologist’ interchangeably – perhaps he should have used the generic ‘shrink’! Your pontificating comments are missing the point and are patronising and are themselves inaccurate, showing you are more interested in showing off your ‘knowledge’ than in checking facts : Nicky was not given ‘escorted’ leave, he was given ‘unescorted’ leave for cigarette breaks – 6 times the day he left – despite having been admitted because he attempted suicide (requiring lengthy surgery), and despite having attempted to drown himself twice before while on unescorted leave – these points were noted down on his files, so don’t push the blame onto someone who was very ill, and not responsible for his actions – you have made a classic ‘blame the victim’ statement, which I find pathetic.
      Nicky’s father.

    • Max – you need to check all facts prior to commenting – that would be your starting point. I agree with Dave – stop blaming

  7. Did we know what “medication?

    Tony said,
    “He was already under the Mental Health Act meaning he had to have court ordered medication every fortnight”
    The common drug/s the screwed up Mental health folks use is the mind altering drug “Prozac” or it’s generic varieties.

    If they used these on Nicky this was a double whamy for any imbalance towards depression and is widely known to cause deepening suicidal tendencies just using Prozac and it’s generic varieties.

    Sorry for your loss.

    FDA Warning on Suicide With Prozac Use

    http://depression.emedtv.com/prozac/prozac-and-suicide.html

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a special warning about the risk of suicidal thinking and behaviour with antidepressant use in children, adolescents, and young adults up to the age of 25.

    • Nicky was on a moderate, fortnightly injected dose of Olanzapine, which – when his court-mandated community treatment provider (Hauora Waikato) followed up and ensured it happened, enabled him to remain in a reasonably steady state, and for instance, participating in a polytechnic course Quite well – of course, when it became irregular, things started falling apart for Nicky. He wasn’t suffering depression – it was Schizophrenia, and he was experiencing some pretty dramatic delusions, which directly led to his suicide attempts. The family was however, most frustrated that there was no other non-chemical support available on a regular basis, and we’re in the midst of trying to arrange some for when he got out of Henry Bennett when he disappeared.
      Nicky’s father

      • Hi Dave,

        I would avoid this like the plague as it has very severe effects, read here, and if this is all they offer we are living with a very sick mental health system indeed.

        Olanzapine

        Pronunciation

        Generic Name: olanzapine (oh-LAN-za-peen)
        Brand Name: Zyprexa Relprevv

        Overdose-like side effects (eg, severe drowsiness, coma, confusion, mental changes), uncontrolled muscle movements, stiff or shaky muscles, trouble talking, joint pain, decreased coordination, aggression, dizziness, weakness, high blood pressure, and seizures have occurred in some patients after injection with olanzapine. In most cases, the reaction occurred within 1 to 3 hours after the injection. You will need to be monitored by a health care professional for at least 3 hours after you receive olanzapine. However, these symptoms may develop more than 3 hours after you receive a dose of olanzapine. Tell your doctor right away if you develop any of these symptoms. Discuss any questions or concerns with your doctor.

        Olanzapine is an antipsychotic. It may increase the risk of death when used to treat mental problems caused by dementia in elderly patients. Most of the deaths were linked to heart problems or infection. Olanzapine is not approved to treat mental problems caused by dementia.

        http://www.drugs.com/cdi/olanzapine.html

        • Cleangreen, Olanzipine helped my partner control her bi-polar/depressive episodes. So it’s nowhere as black and white as you suggest. The meds that my partner are on have helped save her life and stabilise rapid-cycling episodes. Without them, she would be permanently in a psych unit, or probably dead.

          • Who Gnu

            I would not unqualified suggest that any treatment is safe or unsafe.

            Firstly I didn’t suggest these Anti Psychotic Drugs were as black as you believe.

            The words in the post I put up was from this site and had a warning on another from the FDA! and supplied by the US National Library of Medicine, and these are the tall poppy of the medical fraternity, so I would warn to take their advise, and not the silly dysfunctional Mental Health unit of the MOH.

            I am just posting what they said as their words not mine from a service of the “U.S. National Library of Medicine ”

            http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a601213.html

            From the National Institutes of Health National Institutes of Health

            “Studies have shown that older adults with dementia (a brain disorder that affects the ability to remember, think clearly, communicate, and perform daily activities and that may cause changes in mood and personality) who take antipsychotics (medications for mental illness) such as olanzapine have an increased chance of death during treatment.”

  8. This all seems so familiar . I lost my sister to suicide , a few days after she was admitted to Hillmorton Hospital in ChCh after two failed suicide attempts. She was let out after 3 hours – alone – she walked home in the early hours of the morning – ALONE.

    I’ve written letters, to the Coroner, to the hospital and all I get back is corporate-speak-shit and the phrase ” She assured us she wouldn’t do it again and she was embarrassed about her previous attempts ” .
    No apologies, not even a promise to look into it , just arse-covering.

    There’s no profit in healthcare for the mentally ill and suicidal – but hey, every funeral adds to the GDP of NZ.

    • I would be careful, the CCHR was founded by Scientology back in the day, these days they are distancing themselves from those roots but still….

      Also just to note, not all Antipsychiatry/ Critical Psychiatry is tied to scientology, plenty of people are critical for very valid reasons, its just the CCHR that has a problematic history

  9. Hi Tony, I can feel your pain and have done so for all the 100s of young people who have killed themselves since my own son did in 2007.
    I think you are right about the need to organise.
    Taking the top down approach is one way.
    But my experience is that you get worn down by the bureaucracy.
    There have been some small changes in reporting suicide in the last few years but no real change to the approach of the health bureaucracy.
    I see you are a activist with young people.
    That to me is the way to go.
    The biggest barrier to stopping youth suicide IMO was the campaign of the health officials to close down Yellow Ribbon years ago.
    This was a suicide prevention program adopted by many schools based on the school kids organising themselves to encourage troubled kids to speak up to their mates.
    The Govt neo-liberal ‘evidence based’ approach was that a bunch of experts knew better how to stop suicide. Their main research discovery was that talking about it caused suicide!
    I don’t think the state health system can be reformed except as the result of proving how rotten it is by youth organising self-help health backup as the first resort, and then acting as watchdogs over the so-called experts.

  10. Look at the funding, rigor and publicity that goes into reducing our road toll. Now contrast that with our mental health service.

    Only twice as many of us take our own lives as die on the roads annually.

    The only similarity is that Police are the front line responder’s for both.

    Suicidal threats or inclinations result in a police call out, not mental health (they also refuse to do any house calls from 10pm on-wards!) young cops with no training in mental health are then forced to make on the spot decisions as to whether or not detention is required (this is more often than not unlawful from a private premise anyway). They will then take these mentally unwell and suicidal individuals into the place they are most likely to commit suicide – custody.

    This is a broken system and endemic of wider failings in our mental health system as highlighted here. DHB’s are abdicating their responsibilities to police and the very tenets of the mental health act are being ignored.

  11. SO VERY SORRY to hear your story about your dear brother.
    An all too common tragic tale of our times

    “Mental Health” is a terrible misnomer, when pertaining to
    the dysfunctional bureaucratic system that pretends to help people in mental distress.

    Psychiatry is a fraudulent pseudo science, that benefits pharmaceutical companies. All “…zepam” drugs are deadly. If they don’t kill instantly they rob the afflicted by killing their brains gradually over time.

    No drugs cure schizophrenia.They might suppress some symptoms for a while, but they cause nasty withdrawal symptoms when not taken which then cause seeming psychotic episodes, – Vicious cycle.
    Many cases of schizophrenia have been successfully cured by orthomolecular (non drug) medicine

    I feel SO ANGRY about BIG PHARMA RULING psychiatry and “mental HEALTH “(NOT!!) ENTIRE REALM even unto GOVT control of same!
    We are STILL living in Dark Ages – before, they used to lock them up, NOW they drug them stupid.

    My friend – her life has been destroyed, turned into a mindless veg thru years of drugs.
    Another- her son, still young, HATES being on drugs, make him feel weird ..God knows how he’ll end up. He already tried suicide twice.
    BUT- not much help from govt “mental health”- useless dysfunctional broken down system.

    CountryBoy, you are too far ahead of what ordinary people know, but you are RIGHT. It is the IMF Banksters ordering the slash on all important social services, because they hold all indebted nations to ransom..on account of astronomical loans which can never be paid back and are NOTHING MORE than electronic digits on a computer..
    ie a colossal SWINDLE!!!

  12. Nick,

    Best dirty little secret kept by the Mental Health Authorities.

    No money for “alternatives” to drug treatments that have been shied away from globally, but NZ has gone the disastrous cheap way.

    This as Key and his clones savagely continue to cut health budgets and use the cheaper deadly “drug treatments”.

    So the murder of our children and aged is a set in place easy route follow, as Nazis did 80 yrs ago with gypsies and disabled before the Jews.

    This is a crass crude uncaring Government who holds people as of no value and dispensable if they are ill.

  13. There are so many fundamental problems with the NZ Psychiatric system that the correct solution would be to abandon it completely, and simply allow the public and sufferers to buy a range of generics and drugs from chemists of the dose and type they require within limits and introduce a system of graded prisons, from which day release might be allowed from the lower category.The worst feature of NZ psych wards is that serious patient on patient fist assaults are frequent. The major cause of breakdowns, two thirds of which are just a tizzy fit, lack of sleep or bad reaction is that people can not get access to their medication without seeing a specialist or psyc nurse, people who are usually intensely disliked by psych patients or depressives and because GPs or casual visits to GPs often refuse to supply without a specialist referral.
    Generally psych nurses and police, regard psych cases as failures who need to be brought down to a humble limited existance and do menial work to mark them as the bottom of the pack. The standard psych nurse view is that patients are sad, bad or mad- which is degrading to people from professional families. Psych nurses tend to be fairly ordinary people and often gay, and are therefore hardly regarded as good company by many patients.
    My own view is that the modern psych drugs are a huge improvement and would do much good if used in much lower doses. Olanzapine is a fairly inflexible, fattening sedative drug and fairly sexless while Risperidone in the Oral form gives a real lift and can encourage people to move and rearrange their life, which is often what the patient wants but the doctor dosent. Often even a moderate dose makes the person high and over talkative which is why I favour very low doses. The return to injectables is a bit sleasy and the steady state of the injectables largely eliminates the chance of lifting the patient into a better life and space.

  14. […] The family of Nicky Stevens have taken the Waikato DHB and Hauora Waikato to task over the lack of care taken to prevent his death. On Monday March 09 Nicky left the Henry Bennet Centre on a Cigarette break and followed through with his threat to take his own life. His body was later found in the Waikato River. Its just one more story amongst thousands that point glaringly to the fact that the Henry Bennet Centre, Hauora Waikato and the DHB are failing in their mandate to provide consistent Mental Health Care and to protect the community at large. […]

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