GUEST BLOG: Bryan Bruce – Ghosts


Last week I was filming outside the High Court in Auckland when a man approached me and asked if I would like to make a documentary about him because people might be interested in the fact that he was being followed by a ghost.

“Is it following you now?” I asked “because I can’t see it”


“What does this ghost look like ?”

“He’s 7 foot tall, he’s yellow and he vibrates”.

TDB Recommends

“Are you frightened of him?”

“No. He’s very friendly. I’ll draw him for you”.

And with that he took some yellow chalk from the battered bag he was carrying and drew a shape on the footpath that look very much like a giant Pacman with a huge smile.

From the poor state of his clothes, his worn -out shoes, and generally unkempt appearance I wondered if he was homeless.

“Where are you staying?” I asked.

At which his whole expression changed from outgoing to suspicious, as if my question had flicked some switch in his mind, because he turned and walked slowly away.

Some years ago I made a documentary about the closing of the big mental institutions where people who were regarded as insane were sent.

There were many good reasons these places were closed down. Cruelty and abuse were common and also developments in chemical medicines made it possible for many people to be treated within the community.

In the course of making that programme I took one middle aged Maori woman back to the now derelict ward of the mental asylum where she had spent 20 years of her life but who was now looking after herself in a flat funded by the State.

I thought I was about to record story of how much better her life was as a result of closing the place where terrible things that had happened to her .

“So how’s life for you today?” I asked.

At which she turned away from my camera and stared out of the broken window next to which we were standing. After a moment she turned back to me and said

“You know. Bad things happened here but mostly it was good. There were happy times. I had friends. I had jobs to do”.

Then she paused.

“..and I’ve never really felt safe living in the community.”

You might have noticed I used the word “ asylum” in a previous paragraph. When coupled with the word “mental “ it rightly conjures up images of places that were living hell’s where people with mental health issues were locked up.

But the word ‘asylum’ can mean ‘sanctuary’ – a place of peace.

And I do wonder whether, given our incredibly high suicide rate , whether we should be providing more places within our community where folk who have mental health issues are given the chance to take some time out to regain some peace of mind I order to better cope with the pressures of an increasingly stressful world.


Bryan Bruce is one of NZs most respected documentary makers and public intellectuals who has tirelessly exposed NZs neoliberal economic settings as the main cause for social issues.


    • Agreed, Snow White.

      I was working in the health sector over the period when the big institutions were closed. Many reformers were well-intentioned; regrettably, however, successive governments saw it a an opportunity to save money.

      The sector was promised by said governments that the money would be reapplied to community services. Of course – and completely unsurprisingly – that either didn’t happen at all, or not enough funding was allocated to community service providers to allow them to do a proper job.

      Then there were the vulnerable people, tipped out of institutions as they closed, who were simply unable to make a life for themselves in the community.

      The same thing has happened in the US. Anybody who has visited the big cities there over the last 30 years or so will have seen the consequences of that policy in the streets.

  1. Some need long term shelter (asylum) where they feel safe, sadly that option no longer exists. Mental hospitals are where people are tormentened until they either pretend to feel well enough to be allowed to leave or, if unable to pretend, are coerced into more and more medications neuroleptic malignant syndrome caused by antipsychotics is commonly most mistaken for ‘psychosis resulting in more antipsychotics being prescribed and more suffering

    • Rose, It looks as if you’re right re options. Many years ago, a family member subjected to a terrible experience which will haunt me forever, was admitted to the Hutt Hospital, and I gather kept heavily sedated for two weeks. Since then, a friend night nursing at Wellington Hospital’s psych ward, said that it was very noisy, and at times bedlam, with patients no longer routinely sedated at night, as in the former psychiatric hospital days.
      For somebody at breaking point, desperate, and needing to escape from their current reality, there may be no haven available. There should be.

      D’Esterre cites the human debris on America’s streets. I thought they were mainly war vets, from America’s wars on other people’s countries. I cite Pigeon Park, now I think called Te Aro park, once an iconic and rather pretty place to sojourn down Courtney Place, Wgtn, and now an unfortunate trouble spot, possibly partially the outcome of sub optimal social housing decisions, by whatever bodies are responsible for making bad decisions. The politicians know all this. Indeed, they go clubbing down there in the wee small hours.

      • Snow White: “I thought they were mainly war vets, from America’s wars on other people’s countries.”

        More of those nowadays, though the casualties of the asylums’ closure are still everywhere.

        We were there in the 1990s, saw this for ourselves. Street sleepers frequented the area where our motel was in Los Angeles. One in particular would launch into screaming rants periodically.

        The young ones were on the street because of the absence of the asylums: nowhere (or not enough places, and those for short-term stays only) for them to go for resident treatment. The US is a hellhole. NZ is rapidly becoming the same.

        “….Pigeon Park, now I think called Te Aro park…”

        When we were students, it was Pigeon Park and a perfectly unexceptionable place. Now it’s fallen victim to half-arsed government “social housing” policy, which has been to house everyone, including the chronically homeless, in nearby motels, apartment buildings and hotels. Sadly, many such people have longstanding problems, particularly alcoholism and related mental illness. Which is why they’re homeless, of course. Ergo: Pigeon Park is no longer safe. There’s trouble of one sort or another throughout the day. Every day.

        “The politicians know all this.”

        Of course they do. But so long as “the homeless” are being housed, it seems that they don’t give a toss, regardless of the damage done to the area and to other law-abiding citizens. And to said government’s political reputation, about which one would expect them to care.

        Those lost souls surely need a safe place: this country urgently needs the return of the asylum system. But I doubt there’s the slightest prospect of it.

        • I never saw homeless people until I went to live in the Uk. We rang the police twice when we found drunks asleep on our front doorstep on freezing cold winter nights. At this time I learned that ‘ Shelter’, their national organisation for the homeless, was founded by Des Wilson, a journalist from Oamaru, who, like us, had never seen such sights before, and did something about it. It made me proud to be a New Zealander. Not so now. It’s all global optics now, appearing to be kind when we are not kind.

          We’ve always had itinerants – as John A Lee readers well know. My mother took for granted giving loaves of bread to men who came knocking at the door. For some, it was a lifestyle choice. Today, many have no choices, and we all know that some don’t the ability, or the wish, to make choices. Government need to
          justify why it has turned its back on those who most need help.

          Defence of the realm is an inclusive term, and it should not prioritise those who
          least need help, which is the mantra of neoliberalism, and is amoral policy. Somewhere, we may have another Des Wilson, but not in government. Offering asylum to refugees, and rightly so, makes us look good – the optics. Turning our back on people at the bottom is indefensible, and more so when many are at the bottom because of crass, selfish, ignorant, and inept politicians – or worse.

  2. If living in an institution were the voluntary option of someone diagnosed with the need for care it would be a different atmosphere. And the risk of abuse greatly diminished as a potential victim would be free to leave.
    D J S

    • David Stone: “…the voluntary option of someone diagnosed with the need for care it would be a different atmosphere.”

      As a general principle, I agree with you.

      However, there are some cases of mental illness (we have one such in our extended family) where people need to be restrained, both for their own safety and for the safety of others. If the ability to do that didn’t exist, they’d simply check out, both from the institution and from treatment. It’s still possible to have people “sectioned”, and it’s a godsend, even if in-patient stays aren’t long-term.

  3. The big ghost that follows us all, glimpsed only occasionally but always, constantly, naggingly, there, is the one that keeps reminding us that we are our brother’s keeper.

  4. Interesting.
    You might be interested in this:

    I have a friend that once worked there and used to talk of similar encounters after it closed.
    In later years I often used to drive past the place and think what a waste.
    It was left to [w]rack and ruin and eventually sold to a ‘developer’.
    Although I’m not qualified to comment on mental health issues, had it been maintained and improved, it could have been reused for a variety of sanctuaries and refuges.

    Unimaginative masters-of-the-universe have been in control for too long.

    We see the same thing going on with Post Offices and things like Kiwibank co-locations going – especially in more rural areas.
    No reason (other than all that fishinsy and fektivniss shit) that they could not be used as an ‘all-of-government’ service centres – even if certain of the services operated 2 or 3 days a week. Both local and central gummint. Everything from electoral roll enrolments to MSD/WINZ, rates payments, community law, Citizen’s Advice Bureaux, filing tax returns, etc.

  5. “Life, is far too important to take seriously.” Oscar Wilde.
    banksters and their minion MSM have us all believing that their narrative is the only narrative. To ever strive for more stuff and things then die in a timely fashion before we, in our retired destitution, start costing the state they feed from too much of our money they’d prefer to have for themselves.
    Mandatory voting please?
    De-privatise/capitalise what once were OUR state systems and return [them] to a socialist framework. The same framework that gave we AO/NZ’ers the third highest standard of living in the world back in the 1970’s. During the reign of Sir Jack Marshall, I think it was. Remember Sir ‘Gentleman Jack’ Marshall? A National Party prime minister who was stabbed in the back by that loathsome pig muldoon? Then accountant pig thought big and fucked everything up for everyone except for his mates? Aye Boys?
    Grind the foreign banksters under our heels then scrape them off AO/NZ.
    Initiate a commission of inquiry, ( Christ knows how?? ) preferably made up of foreign investigators, into past and present relationships between AO/NZ Big Business and our elected politicians spanning that last one hundred years and make the inquiry freely available through social media and other networks.
    We must all live with ghosts @ Bryan Bruce. I hope, in my own small, insignificant way, I’m one of theirs.

  6. Since it is industrial society, and especially it’s most recent iteration -the consumer society- which is riving people crazy, it naturally follows that the number of people requiring assistance with mental disorders grows by the day. The industrial system is predicated on alienating people from nature. And the consumer society is predicated on alienating people from one another and fostering the notion that ‘greed is good’ and that beating others to the latest ‘bargain’ or acquiring the latest gizmo equates with success.

    The ridiculousness and destructive nature of ‘the system’ was known decades ago, and presented in popular songs:

    ‘Little boxes on the hillside
    Little boxes made of ticky tacky
    Little boxes
    Little boxes
    Little boxes all the same…’

    ‘They paved paradise
    Put up a parking lot
    With a pink hotel, a boutique
    And a swinging hot spot
    Don’t it always seem to go
    That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?
    They paved paradise..’

    ‘I think I’m sophisticated
    ‘Cause I’m living my life like a good homosapien
    But all around me everybody’s multiplying
    ‘Til they’re walking round like flies man
    So I’m no better than the animals sitting in their cages
    In the zoo man
    ‘Cause compared to the flowers and the birds and the trees
    I am an ape man

    [Verse 2]
    I think I’m so educated and I’m so civilized
    ‘Cause I’m a strict vegetarian
    But with the over-population and inflation and starvation
    And the crazy politicians
    I don’t feel safe in this world no more
    I don’t want to die in a nuclear war
    I want to sail away to a distant shore and make like an ape man’

    And many others.

    Since we are in the early stages of collapse of industrialism and collapse of the consumer society, it naturally follows that all the people who believed (and still believe) the bullshit churned out by economists and politicians over recent decades are about to have the rug pulled from under their feet, and have the entire basis for their lives disappear, along with their employment and asset bubbles.

    This is all clearly laid out in Tim Watkins latest piece ‘Beyond the auction of promises’ -which could have the word false inserted, i.e. ‘Beyond the auction of false promises’

    ‘….The reality of our situation is that we are on the downslope of the fossil fuel-powered industrial civilisation:

    In the absence of an alternative high energy density power source to replace oil, coal and gas – which currently does not exist – the surplus energy needed to sustain a consumer economy will continue to decline. Prosperity will continue to shrink, with the few who can still maintain a middle class standard of living, retreating to their gated communities while poverty and homelessness become ever more visible.’

    Just when the collapse will accelerate to the totally-out-of-control point is still open to debate.

    One thing is certain though: ‘the system’ won’t be there when it is needed most.

  7. I was hoping someone would broach this subject. There were concerns back then when the likes of Tokanui was being shut down that the baby was being thrown away with the bathwater. But merely whispering the idea that some people with mental fragility might actually feel safer (and more stable) in such places invited criticism that one was ‘resistant to change’ and ‘living in the past’. Worse was the accusation that one merely wanted to hide the mentally ill in isolated institutions so they could be forgotten about.

    Community care was always going to be dependent on proper resourcing, security of housing and sufficient income for ‘clients’ to be able to participate at some level in their communities. (Pause here for appropriately ironic guffaws.)

    And very few people ever acknowledged that for some, the peace of the countryside and the security of the fences was exactly the right therapeutic environment. Far from the madding crowd, and surrounded by people who had a greater tolerance for various idiosyncrasies.

    Thank you again Bryan for bringing us your much valued insights.

  8. I knew the man who was the head gardener at ‘Oakley’ back in the 1960’s. He had many of the ‘in-mates’ gainfully employed growing many of the institutions vegetables. Along came the mental health ‘experts’ and said the gardening was to stop “these people needed therapy, not gardening jobs.” Seems to me, as society becomes more and more stressful places of ‘gardening’ sanctury become more and more necessary.

  9. One of the problems with NZ policy is that it goes from one extreme to the other instead of improving existing processes and having a zero tolerance for abuse.

    Example the mental heath and closing down of asylums while not providing enough support and places in the community.

    Another example making maternity services as having only one provider aka choosing between a non existent doctor (as doctors pulled out of obstetrics with the new changes) and a midwife. Now even the midwives are non existent as they are expected to provide services in a system that always needed obstetricians to help them with difficulties in pregnancy.

    Instead of empowering midwifes and supporting doctors (both financially and practically) they go for a system based on short term savings and to break down the quality of care into dollars and cents for maternity, but has failed on every count by the sounds of it. Does not save money, does not provide better care, does not make people want to train to be midwifes or obstetricians for the community…

    Another example is, tomorrows schools where the government let ‘board of directors of the community’ start to be the employers of the principals and being able to make a lot of decisions, without any knowledge of education. Furthermore, principals and teachers started to be responsible for all health and safety and accidents at the school of the children. Funny enough, that is not really what attracts people to teaching and has developed into a stressful and risk based approach to education rather than better policy furthering better educational outcomes for NZ children who are going backwards in international test scores.

    There was nothing wrong with having more parents involved in the school, but making parents ‘the bosses’ of the principals and post Pike river leglislation somehow making the principal or teachers fault if there is an accident at the school. Stupidity.

    So many poor changes to mention… aka housing changes means that state houses are sold or ‘given away’ to community groups, state houses land is ‘swapped’ for building new demolished state houses in the never never, and the continuing bizarre commercial decisions based on private greed and appropriation of public assets is continued.

    They neoliberals are in charge of the crazy policy afflicting NZ, and it shows!

  10. Judge a society on how it treats its less fortunate citizens, and under that measurement, we suck….because we follow neo liberalism and it is a heartless and cruel, by design……

  11. Community Care was always about the bottom line. A typical accounting approach to a complex health issue where the odious one size fits all argument of the number crunchers and bean counters amounted to not our problem thinking that pervades the neo -liberal society.Many people need institutional type care. But they also need to be free to choose to come and go. Why? it’s called security. And it doesn’t cost that much to provide. The viscous knife of efficiency has the NZ State by the short and curlies and has done for 40 years. It has truncated our thinking shriveled our hearts and stunted us completely as a people.

  12. An interesting and relative article. My Grandfather ended up in lake Alice in the late fifties after a fall from the top of a stable loft. He had other issues but my memory of visiting him was of a person content enough with his situation. Of course some very debatable practices took place back-then. I’ve also had experience of a close family member being temporarily sectioned into the current system and then then released into community care. With the current system I have no criticism at all, the experience was good. That’s if you get access to it. In the time my family member got to use the newish unit in Hawke’s Bay to now ,a year later, that unit has become over run with the added pressure of the drug issues, homelessness and the increasing stresses of the times. The problems seem to be growing faster than our ability to capital resource it. This is more about the way we house our population and our ability to find purpose with jobs and dignity with living standards. If we carry on the way we’re going we will need huge institutions to cope with the numbers requiring treatment. Community care won’t cope. Sort out the jobs and housing and the stress and the problems will shrink to a level that the present system will work. In my opinion.

  13. At the rate of $900,000 a day spent on motels and no end or solution in sight. $82m for the last quarter.
    The ‘Motel Generation’ is the next failure that future governments will have to deal with because they continue to ignore it and take it seriously now.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.