The mental health system in New Zealand routinely fails Kiwis and their families in the worst way imaginable.
My brother Nicky Stevens was one of those Kiwis and my family is fighting to make sure his death is the last time a family has to lose a loved one because of negligence in our mental health system.
Nicky suffered from schizophrenia and was under the compulsory care of the Waikato DHB. He was extremely unwell when he was able to drown himself on March 9. Since then my family has been engulfed in stories from devastated and furious families who are missing loved ones in similar circumstances. Sons, daughters, brothers and sisters dying while in the care of our health boards is nothing new. The ‘industry’ of mental health is so resistant to change that any lessons from these tragedies are quickly lost in a maze of bureaucracy and butt covering.
What we have learned from hearing these stories, and what we already suspected, is that these decision makers are rarely held accountable when a Kiwi dies in their care. That is why my family is fighting so hard – because if you don’t make a racket then nothing will change. History could repeat itself and Nicky’s death would mean nothing.
That’s why we are determined to keep this issue in the public, and why we have chosen to make a formal complaint to the police. We believe those responsible for Nicky’s care at the Henry Bennett Centre were grossly negligent in the circumstances leading up to his death and we have no faith in their internal “belly of the beast” processes to establish the truth. Even if their internal investigation established some liability to the Waikato DHB I doubt they will get much more than a slap with a wet bus ticket.
When an individual is found to be guilty of killing someone by accident they are charged with manslaughter. But when our health services are responsible for someone’s death all we get are weak assurances that “we’ll do better next time”. That’s not good enough.
There needs to be a police investigation. Nicky was admitted to the Henry Bennett Centre because he intended to kill himself. Less than three weeks later Nicky was still unstable, but was allowed to leave the hospital unescorted for a smoke on multiple occasions in one morning, despite strong protests from his family regarding unescorted leave throughout his stay at HBC.
We knew he was in danger, and we knew that he’d already tried to harm himself on a previous unsupervised smoke break. We were ignored.
The Waikato District Health Board is annoyed at my family for initiating a police investigation. They are not used to being examined by the police – but perhaps it’s about time they were. A police investigation will (hopefully) bring a heightened degree of scrutiny and it will promote a public discussion about accountability in our mental health system.
The DHB has tried to use the welfare of their staff as an excuse to bemoan the necessity of a police investigation – but a man is dead. Justice must be sought in the most responsible and independent way possible.
They are trying to claim that important processes will be delayed because of police interference. We have since spoken to senior detectives and lawyers and learned that there is no legal barrier preventing the DHB from continuing their internal inquiry – which they had barely started more than six weeks after Nicky’s death. The detectives suggested it was common for public services to halt such inquires while a police investigation was underway but literally shrugged their shoulders when asked why.
As for the board’s claim that there is a parliamentary legal aid mechanism in place for families who need legal support in the Coroner’s Court – are you serious? Why didn’t you tell us? Where is this magical service? Why haven’t the hundreds of victimized families who have contacted us mentioned this? Where is the process for informing families of the support mechanisms available? I suspect the board is clutching at straws here, and even if this service exists it ignores the fact that the coroner’s inquiry is not the only process where we need legal representation.
The board refused to fund Nicky’s legal expenses despite being legally responsible for his care saying they could find no precedent for such a decision. They argued that funding his expenses will reduce the money available to care for sick people. If they are so worried about resources for patient care then why are they are spending plenty of your taxpayer money on their own legal costs and that of their management and staff? Wouldn’t any reasonable person agree that if they cared for their patients as the public expects then deaths like Nicky’s would be less likely to occur?
We are not asking them to loosen their purse strings to every family with an axe to grind – we only ask that the DHB take responsibility for Nicky’s expenses since they were legally responsible for his safety. If I caused a car accident and someone died as a result of my actions I’d probably be making phone calls to my mum from a prison cell.
I particularly dislike the boards claim that the only way to keep everyone safe is to lock them up indefinitely. You’ve got to be kidding me…We were not asking anyone to lock Nicky up. We were asking them to keep an eye on him.
He was a serious suicide risk yet he was granted unescorted smoke breaks outside of hospital grounds, despite my parents pleading with psychiatrists and management not to give him unsupervised leave unless he was with family or friends. We expressed these dire concerns in person, over the phone, and in emails – and have the paper trail to prove it – but we were ignored. And now Nicky is dead.
One of the best ways we can keep people suffering from mental illness safe is to include their families in their care.
I’ve seen what happens when families are shut out – Kiwis die. We can’t allow this to continue.
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.