GUEST BLOG: Tony Stevens – why did my brother die?


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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.

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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.


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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.


  1. Well said, Tony. I am following your family’s efforts to expose the incompetence and downright stupidity of what passes for Mental Health care in NZ. In my sons’ case, Whirinaki Mental Health let him down, badly. I have a file where they have written, Deans’ risk of suicide is increased in the Gillard household, CYF completely ignored them and sent him back there to die. Who is wrong? I am like your family and I will NOT give up in the fight for Justice for my family either. Justice delayed, is Justice denied.

    • I hate to tell you but this kind of thing happens in general hospitals too. I had over a 100 hours of complex surgery I never consented to and now the notes that reveal errors have been removed from the main body of notes making it impossible to get to the truth and get rightful claims through ACC for compensation.

      The police wont even look at my case in fact they have harrassed me and Tony Ryal just said “what do you want me to do about it?” The sad fact is that after pushing hard for these notes thewy sent them to me except they were obvious forgeries, written on A4 unsigned by a surgeon and they were sent to me. I have read the originals I spent so long in hospital as a guinea pig to a surgeons fantaies I read all my notes frontwards and backwards.

      Each time I get a different story and the powers that be who are paid to assist you in such matters fob you off saying things like “You dont fit into our criteria?” You are bullied and harassed and left to live in extreme pain and hardship, and of course no Doctor will speak out against another and for pain meds or anything else you have to see your Doctor and these days they are proving to be less trustful lacking honor and integrity and evemn throwing away the hipocratic oath they swore to uphold before becoming Doctors.

      There are some good ones out there but the are hard to find and also constrained bu third party bureaucrats that believe they have a great understanding you your situation even if they have never met you let alone know your name.

      There is no right to sue and they know it, they also know that they can do almost what they want when they want and no matter how bad it is it is always the patients fault or the patient has to pay the ultimate price.

      There is no humanity left in this country and the sad fact is that there is money enough to do the job well it is just spent by people who have no idea what they are doing let alone the difficulties faced by people with disabilities no matter what kind. In my case errors were made I was coerced into something I did not want which left me crippled and in terrible pain and when it was over they threw me out onto the street.

      Eventually I had toi have a leg amuptated and even that was not done properly but after only three days I was sent home to an empty house with some paracetomol, the shock alone from having a leg cut off was bad enough but to try and cope with it on my own and as it turned out the amputation was very badly done and later I had it redone overseas at huge expense to myself. Since my accident I have done nothing but try and beat it and climb back out of this hole I have been thrown into and my crime? I was dumb enough to believe that a surgeon was a person of interity and that my interests were at his core, not so I found out I was just a piece of meat a lab rat and my life was worth nothing so makes for a good experiment at the taxpayer expense but in the end I am forced to pay a much higher price. About one million dollars spent on radical experimental surgery I never consented to that includes drugs hospital time etc etc when I asked from the start for my right foot to be taken off in 6 months I would have been back at work, but no! Two years in hospital many more struggling to get a life back and suffering abuse and insults from ACC doctors and the health professional system in this country, what a waste of money and not one dime spent to help me get back to work or into a home or anything I have spent over 25 years and every dime I possess to get help in other countries to fix the errors here and to try and reduce pain. I am called a junkie a low life all kinds of horrible things have been levelled at me for trying to stand up for my rights and I have to say the pain I continue to deal with is the hardest because it brings me ever closer to taking my own life just like another woman I knew who had surgery from the same surgeon. Basically they just dont care, neither do the ministers running the country and the people working in places and getting paid to help, it is a scam, one big scam and if they were honest they would like everybody with a disability to kill themselves it saves them money time and it is an easy way to disgard their crimes because it is a crime and one that keeps being committed because those who are empowered to stop it ignore it, turn the other cheek and smile at you on TV and lie through their teeth. And the worst part, most people in this country do not care either until it happens to them, as long as the All Blacks are winning and Beer is not too expensive then that is all they care about. No wonder we have such a disgusting array of no hope self serving lying low life scum that slides their way through this countries corridors of power. Some people are lucky they have family and friends to help and support them and then there are others like me who have no family and almost no friends because nobody wants to befriend a cripple no matter how smart you are. Those in power should be ashamed of themselves and so should most of the country for allowing this crap to continue, hell it isn’t like they don’t know, Tony Ryall got a select committee going to investigate this very question and one of those in it was David Russell the consumer man, that report is damning but again nothing done the situation gets worse and people lives are ruined and cut short and John Key has the audacity to run down other countries records on human rights? God forbid is he that stupid, no he isn’t, he knows what is happening he just doesn’t give a damn because all he cares about is his big slice of the cake when he is done, he is no leader of a country he is a slime ball who’s self interest guides him in every step he makes. He has no interest in what those people are doing in government departments and when the pulic gets a little testy they have a select comitte throw money at it find that the people are right ignore the findings and move on under the shadow of the All lastest victory and all is fogotten except for those like myself and others who know first hand how bad how soul destroying and how heartbreaking these attitudes from our leaders are slowly tearing them apart and killing them in fact I will go as far as saying they are murdering people but they dont have the guts to do it quickly and in public, no it has to be slow and painful to hide it in the shadows. My heart goes out to all those here who have and understand these problems, I for one know how difficult they make life when it could be so much better and it does not have to cost more it only has to be run properly by people who care and understand and guess what you skeptics out there you will be amazed what disabled people can do when they are given a chance and treated equal, or is it that you are too scared to be upstaged by us lesser beings?

      I feel a storm coming and I am happy because I think finally people are realising how bad things have become, I pray that this storm builds to a level that blasts our beehive with all the fury of a tsunami and for those who laugh at me or lay scorn at my door I have a few words for you, walk a mile in my shoes then you can comment, and of course remember in the blink of an eye, in a heartbeat your life can be changed forever and there but for the grace of God go I. And if you do not understand that then you don’t have the intelligence to comment so keep your mouth shut unless you have been there and know what it is like to be at the mercy of our very sick and corrupt health service and ACC. I know why John Key hates China so much because he knows that they would shoot him if he were doing the things he is doing if he were a politician there, maybe we should consider the same fate for those who in my opinion are guilty of aiding and abetting such crimes against vulnerable people, and they do it with a smile, that is the bit that really gets me.

  2. Well written Tony…nothing written is fabricated or untrue. Don’t let the bureaucracy of the DHB break your family’s resolve to fight for justice and honesty.

  3. Please remember that mental health services are the poor relatives of the health system, severely underfunded and with very stretched staff. As someone who has a very close relative with a severe mental illness and is working in the field, I am acutely aware of the the difficulties faced by both sides of the argument.

    The DHB in my area (Canterbury) is proactive in trying to improve the involvement of family/whanau and has excellent crisis response teams and community mental health teams with the focus of early intervention.

    Over Christmas, my loved one had a “glitch” which was escalating. Fortunately we have a responsive GP who heeded my concerns and made immediate contact with the CR team. They in turn contacted me by phone and were on hand to come out to see us if needed (we live rurally). They stayed in contact with us over the next fortnight on a daily basis and were clear that I could phone any time 24/7. We were lucky this time, my loved one responded to clinical recommendations to increase meds and things gradually settled down.

    However this was the first time in over 30 years of living with a mental illness sufferer that I, as a family member, had felt truly supported and heeded.

    Progress is happening in mental health and the providers of services, I have found are all caring people who are passionate about getting good outcomes for their patients. But until greater funding in made available by governments, and staffing levels and facilities improved, there will be mistakes and tragic accidents.

    But the desperately sad truth is that if a person is really determined to kill themselves they will, regardless of the supports around, and this is something nobody working in mental health takes lightly.

    • Very basic, common-sense things were ignored in my brother’s case and the case of many of Kiwi families. I have even pointed up many of the shameful details that point to negligence on the DHB’s part. It is not actually the individual mental health workers we are criticizing but their management, psychiatry, and policies (both local and national). Some parts of the country may be improving but others like the Waikato are barely out of the dark ages. I acknowledge your views but I also completely disagree with your final statement – many Kiwis with the right care have survived their determination to kill themselves and gone on the live fulfilling, if still challenging, lives. I’m sure mental health workers don’t take suicide lightly however management has a history of shoving it under the rug and not taking responsibility.

  4. If we are honest- we must admit that nothing in Government really works. The difference is that now we are all starting to see that and understand it. And may we speed along towards evolution- axing the Vatican controlled Crown franchise and all of its fraud and crimes. 🙂

  5. Dear Tony,
    I applaud your tenacity and determination to make a stand in memory of Nicky may he rest in peace.
    I have been locked up in the Henry Bennett Centre and although I don’t smoke I needed fresh air and had to wait for the door to the large, welcoming garden to be opened so I could get outside for ten minutes.
    I wondered where the smokers was a beautiful sunny day and the birds were jumping around in the shrubs. I think it is weird that patients are left to their own devices to smoke as if it were some kind of magical activity.
    Relatives of patients are often disregarded by DHBs especially in the mental health units and following a suicide there is no follow up protocol for families. No counselling, co-ordination or consideration of their circumstances. Complaints are ignored and brushed under the carpet and publishing of details is still not lawful, I think.
    There are literally thousands of families left bereft and gobsmacked from the sudden loss of a loved one which in our secular country if not dealt with in some from or another causes unresolved grief, anger and sepsis on an unprecedented scale. Saying that if someone really wants to kill themselves they will do so is I’m my opinion a total cop out.

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