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Mental health workers deserve more support

Board chair Bob Simcock

Board chair Bob Simcock

The recent death of Nicky Stevens while in the care of the Waikato DHB has understandably caused his family a great deal of pain and anger and I want to take this opportunity to again express to them my personal condolences and those of the DHB.

We all wish that this is something that would never happen.

Waikato DHB admits around 87,000 people to its hospitals each year. In the vast majority of cases, things go to plan but in a small number of cases, they don’t.

Whenever there is a serious injury or death in our hospitals, there is an internal review to identify how we can stop it happening again. Every time there is an unexpected death within mental health services, there is a Coroner’s enquiry and most often an investigation by the Health and Disabilities Commission.

Together these enquiries ensure that we learn from things that go wrong and attribute responsibility if that is needed. Unfortunately yesterday we learned that Nicky’s family have laid a formal complaint with the police. The police will now need to investigate and it is quite likely that their investigation will cause significant delays in these other enquiries.

Every day staff within our mental health services come to work to care for their patients. In doing so they take on physical and emotional and now it seems reputational risk. They save many lives and they enable many people to live better lives than might otherwise be the case. When they lose a patient they also grieve. They have a right to expect that when a death occurs in their service, all of the information will be gathered and evaluated properly before conclusions are drawn.

In this case, that hasn’t happened. People have commented without knowing the facts. Individuals have been named on social media as the people responsible and this has drawn ridicule and implied threats as a result. People who work in mental health services deserve more support from their community than they are getting right now. Perhaps we should think more about what our mental health services do achieve.

Nicky Stevens’ family requested that the DHB pay for their legal representation in the Coroner’s Court. We can find no precedent for such a payment being made within the New Zealand health system. Whatever a DHB pays for legal expenses will reduce the money available to care for sick people.

While this might be supportive of the families of people who have died, it would be unfair for people who are unable to get medical treatment they need. The Parliament has determined that the legal aid system is the appropriate mechanism to support families in the Coroner’s Court. If we don’t think that is adequate that is a decision for the Parliament, not for the DHB. For these reasons the Board has decided that we must decline the family’s request for funds.

Forty years ago I worked at Tokanui Hospital as a clinical psychologist. Mental health services have come a long way since then and no doubt we need them to improve further still. But our expectations need to be realistic. The only way they can keep everyone safe all of the time is to lock everyone up indefinitely. I’ve seen what that does to people. We mustn’t go back there.

Bob Simcock
Waikato District Health Board

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