Dave Macpherson: Mental Health is still holding its breath


Over the last few days my partner has been helping and supporting a Nelson mother who’s mentally unwell son – known to be at high risk of suicide, and supposedly under the care of Nelson Marlborough DHB mental health services, has twice disappeared from that care.

His mother is naturally extremely concerned, and is left wondering why her son’s carers didn’t learn from their first mistake and seem incapable of running a mental health system where patient safety is paramount.

North of Cook Strait, a Matamata father, also supported by our whanau, has been fighting Waikato DHB over the death of his son while in the compulsory care of their mental health services – the notorious Henry Bennett Centre.

Ray Thomassen’s son Rhys, was taken out on leave as part of a group of patients escorted by too few staff to meet the DHB’s own requirements. He had earlier taken off from a similar group and, although found on that occasion, had threatened to suicide if he was enabled to abscond again.

Unsurprisingly Rhys’ known suicide risk became a terrible reality.

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Even the DHB’s own, inadequate, ‘serious incident review’ highlighted a litany of failures by the DHB mental health leadership and responsible staff. One wonders what a more independent and objective Coroner’s inquest will find.

Again, as my own family and the Nelson mother did, Rhys’ father is also wondering why this country’s mental health leadership seem incapable of running a system that prioritises patient safety.

These two cases are very much the tip of the iceberg as far as horror stories about terrible outcomes from poor care in Aotearoa/New Zealand’s mental health system, and all DHBs have their fair share of such stories.

What is worse is that they are also highly similar to the horror stories that were coming out of DHB mental health services under the previous, unlamented, National Government.

While the Government has quite rightly budgeted a large chunk of cash to address a myriad of mental health issues, it has unfortunately failed to drive through systemic and leadership change – leaving the same inmates in charge of the same asylum (to use a perhaps non-PC turn of phrase).

Given the Government’s justifiable recent focus on the Covid-19 response, some of the oomph temporarily went out of this issue for a few months. But every suicide, and every high suicide risk situation will bring the issue further back to the fore.

In response to the lack of real change in the mental health area, a group of suicide-bereaved whanau members from Waikato has recently contacted Health Minister David Clark (while he’s still in  that role), demanding an independent review of the leadership and structure of that DHB’s mental health sector, and an implementation plan for the changes that the Government’s funding decisions supposedly have kicked off – something that is overdue in all areas.

We’re still holding our breath.


Dave Macpherson – TDB mental health blogger & Former Waikato DHB Elected Member whose son was killed by public health negligence.