28 November 2001
Mental Health services must listen to families
Sue Bradford - Green Party
General Debate - slot 3
Delivered at 3.45pm
This week in Invercargill we can see unfolding before us yet another chapter in the sorry history of mental health
services in this country.
The Queenstown coroner is currently carrying out the inquest into the death of teacher Mrs Paddy Burton, knifed to death
by her son Mark who was formally released from the Southland Hospital mental health unit the day before she was killed.
The court case which found Mark not guilty by reason of insanity has already taken place.
Now I do not want to dwell on the sad details of this case, nor should I, but I bring it to Parliament's attention today
because I think what happened on March 31 this year in Queenstown is symptomatic of some of the deep underlying problems
facing a mental health community in crisis.
For a start, this is not the only case. In the past ten years we've seen example after example of situations where
people who staff our acute units and CAT teams seem to pay little or no attention to what parents and families tell them
about their mentally ill family member, with results varying from the merely uncomfortable to the tragic.
And I guess I'll have to admit vested interest here, as almost six years ago to the day I lost my own eldest son Danny
to suicide after a sequence of events at the local acute unit which left our family desperate for answers, and for
Since then, there's been yet another inquiry - the excellent Mason report; the establishment of the Mental Health
Commission; the formation of the strategic Blueprint and extra millions of dollars poured in by the Government.
And yet, what's changed? People are still being discharged from acute units in total disregard for what families like
the Burtons tell them. Deaths, both homicides and suicides, are still happening.
Just this month I attended, along with some of my fellow MPs, a large public meeting in Dunedin where all the
frustration of unheard voices and lost hopes were voiced by many ordinary parents who can't understand, any more than I
can, why more can't be done to change the system now.
It's not a matter of not knowing the answers. We have had numerous inquiries and reports and the ongoing work of the
Commission is undoubtedly useful. But when are the solutions going to be applied in practice?
Just to consider a few of them in the short time I have here, I am sure the current Health Minister is aware of the Code
of Family Rights which was put together by the Schizophrenia Fellowship. This Code encompasses many of the things
families are trying to get across to mental health professionals, DHBs and Government, and includes such things as, 'The
family / whanau has the right to be taken seriously when expressing concerns about the person's behaviour.'
Even implementing this one part of the Code in practice could have a profound influence in avoiding some of the human
tragedies which continue to happen.
I believe the Code of Family Rights should be operationalised as an integral baseline for all mental health staff
dealing with tangata whaiora and their families.
A second key area where change is needed without delay is in the way we treat our mental health nurses. Nurses are at
the frontline of the service, and yet they are dealt with abominably, in terms of both pay and training.
For example, the Burton case has highlighted the situation of registered nurse Tina Barlow, who was working at the unit
when Mark Burton was first admitted in February, and who cared for him during his stay there. Ms Barlow's only
experience at working in the mental health area was six weeks of clinical work, and four weeks of theory during her
three year training to be a registered nurse.
This is totally unacceptable. Mental health nursing is not somehow less important or requiring of less ability than
nursing those with physical disease or injury. Training for mental health nurses should be upgraded to the kind of
levels we see in best practice overseas, not relegated to a minor and meaningless category within the standard three
Nor should mental health nurses continue to be paid the peanuts they're currently offered. No wonder we have mental
health nurses in Christchurch taking industrial action, and no wonder so many of our mental health nurses head off
overseas where their skills are valued and they can earn two or three times as much as they do here.
And it's not just about money - it's also about how whether we honour and respect the people who take on one of the
hardest jobs there is.
I know money is not unlimited, and that the Government has been trying to make positive changes. However, I think
Government, the DHBs, and all involved in the mental health world need to do some serious reprioritisation of resources,
and some critical thinking about what could and should be done to make things better, right now - for all our sakes.