The same day that the Chief Coroner issued the 2018-19 0fficial suicide statistics, showing an awful 685 kiwis had fallen victim to suicide during the year, our family and many other Waikato residents received another kick in the guts when the body of yet another Waikato DHB acute mental health inpatient was found in the Waikato River near the Waikato Hospital’s Henry Bennett Centre.
Although some groups had shown a small decrease in numbers of suicides, Maori and Pasifika suicides were still increasing, as were those of young people 15-24 – the group that is showing up worst when compared internationally – whose statistics worsened by 27% in the year.
The Henry Bennett Centre inpatient was, like our son Nicky in 2015, let out of the acute ward unescorted, and his body was found in the River the following day.
While we don’t know any other details about the case, the fact that someone unwell enough to be placed in an acute inpatient facility is let out without any support person with him, beggars comprehension.
Clearly, the Waikato DHB mental health authorities have learnt nothing from our family’s painful experience with unescorted leave of unwell patients, and have taken no effective notice of the Coroner’s criticism of them over this practice.
The Clinical Director of Mental Health Services at Waikato DHB, Dr Rees Tapsell, has publicly criticised the coverage of this latest death, claiming ‘circumstances were different’. He didn’t elaborate on the claimed differences, and our family notes that no-one from the DHB thought to contact us and warn us about the body being found in the River. In fact, I found out via a phone call from local media to me, saying “what do you think about the latest suicide of a DHB patient in the same circumstances as Nicky?”
We also note that Tapsell held the same position when our son died, and that there have been several other deaths of DHB mental health patients during his watch over the last 10-12 years.
The following day I listened to a radio interview with the father of 21-year-old Christchurch suicide victim Liam Booth.
Geoff Booth described how he felt the Canterbury DHB had seriously let down his son, when he’d been taken by police to Christchurch Hospital after threatening suicide in a city park. Instead of being admitted to the inpatient unit, Liam had been assessed in the outpatient unit after police got him to the hospital, and then sent home in a taxi. Geoff was only told over the phone, and by the time he got to the Hospital, Liam had left. Eighteen days later Liam was dead, despite efforts from his family and the City Mission to support him.
Geoff has now lodged a formal complaint to the Canterbury DHB, and is standing in the October elections for that body, to highlight to the community the issues of mental illness and suicide.
Recently Canterbury police described themselves as ‘under siege’ with callouts to an average of 11 suicide attempts per day in the preceding year, a total of 4,369 in that period.
After nine years of almost complete inaction by the last Government in the mental health/suicide space, we’ve had the near two-year-old Labour/NZ First/Green Government announce major budget spending over the next period, placing mental health as the (theoretical) No.1 issue.
But apart from some quick action by the Prime Minister in her first 100 days to announce the Mental Health Inquiry, and to approve a few pilot mental health support staff in schools, on the ground there’s been precious little action.
The same people in the Ministry of Health HQ are running their mental health team, under Director Dr John Crawshaw, advising the Government on how to respond to the Inquiry report, advising Health Minister David Clarke, and otherwise keeping the same lid on things as was done under the National Government.
And therein lies the problem; in the absence of a hard-driving Minister of Health with the energy and willingness to crack the whip over an industry and profession that is completely stuck in a 25-year old mindset, the leadership of the mental health profession in this country will deliver more of the same for years to come, and the strategic willingness of this Government to push for change in the mental health sphere will become another victim of the Ministry bureaucracy and an entrenched profession.
Dave Macpherson – TDB mental health blogger & Former Waikato DHB Elected Member