Last week the Government announced, with much fanfare, the rebuild of Waikato DHB’s notorious Henry Bennett Centre, a place that was quite literally the death of our son Nicky, and of several other acutely ill patients.
I refuse to use the building’s full Maori name, as it has never deserved to have access to the name of this country’s first Maori clinical psychologist, other than for the fact that it has certainly housed far more Maori inpatients than it should have!
The current prison-like building was only built in the late 1990’s, as part of the mental health sector’s supposed ‘deinstitutionalisation’ of mental health services, whereby more services would be provided in the community, intercepting the need for all but the most acutely unwell patients.
Of course, and as often happens, community mental health services were starved of the resources needed to really make a difference, and institutions like the Henry Bennett Centre became not just the place of choice for people experiencing difficulties, but very often the only apparent option.
Two experiences I’ve had serve to illustrate.
In 1999, newly elected to Hamilton City Council, I presided over a resource consent hearing into an application by a community mental health care provider to expand a residential care house they had in a Hamilton suburb. Opposing it were a collection of working class neighbours. It turned out that the ‘Richmond Fellowship’ organisation had won a DHB contract to provide community-based residential care by tendering the lowest price – it was able to do this by buying a flimsy house in the cheapest suburb, packing six people with moderate mental health issues into converted bedrooms, and providing onsite support from one staff member only, and then only during normal working hours. Rather than being Nimby’s, the neighbours were concerned that no one was supporting the patients for 16 hours a day, leading to a lack of safety for all concerned for most of the time.
That was the extent of the ‘care’ that was being offered by the system outside the supposedly secure Hospital building.
In my son Nicky’s case, he was studying at Waikato University, doing fairly well in the first half of his first year, when the stress and pressure got to him. His flatmates became concerned about his mental health and called the community mental health services who, rather than setting up a plan with Nicky of respite care and community-based support, immediately delivered him to the Henry Bennett Centre, where he was placed in a high security unit, and had all his clothes removed (they were subsequently lost) and was given a pathetic hospital ‘gown’ to wear for several days. He was only let out of that high security section when he agreed to accept regular doses of an anti-psychotic drug, one that caused as many problems as it alleviated.
In 2018, before I became ‘collateral damage’ in the sweeping Waikato DHB Board sacking, DHB mental health management bought to our Board a plan for the replacement of the Henry Bennett Centre, something that had been in the wings for two years since a Ministry of Health audit found the building was “unfit for purpose” – the only problem was that there had been zero planning for how community mental health care could be resourced and uplifted to the point where the long-term need for a new acute care building could be reduced.
After several Board members supported my objections to a focus only on the ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’, DHB staff scrambled to produce an all-round mental health care ‘plan’, which they did, but was literally no more than a series of vision statements – enough to melt away all but my objections.
So now, they’ve talked the Government into approving the $100M rebuild of the Henry Bennett Centre (its gone up $7M in the 18 months since we first saw it), but have yet to provide any practical evidence in the Waikato of serious increased community care resourcing for mental health services.
To be fair to the Government, THEY have announced a series of improvements and new programmes in community mental health care, but as yet many of these are only ‘pilots’ or ‘trials’, and the feet on the ground are mostly not showing up yet. As Health Minister David Clarke said to our whanau on the day of the rebuild announcement, there are simply not enough trained mental health support workers in the community, and unlikely to be so for several years to come – but a start needs to be made.
Our concern is that it’s comparatively easy to announce squillions for bricks and mortar, so they did that, but its sending the wrong message that we’re on top of the mental health situation in Aotearoa, when in reality we’ve got the clubrooms and bar ready for our guests, but the playing field where the real action needs to take place is still a rubbish tip! (Excuse the sporting analogy – I think I’ve been watching too many World Cup matches).
Dave Macpherson – TDB mental health blogger & Former Waikato DHB Elected Member whose son died while in mental health care.