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.
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.
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.