Mental health danger signs apparent in NZ

19:45, Dec 17 2012

I'm old enough to remember a time when mental health patients were institutionalised. The places they were "kept" always seemed to have names completely at odds with the reality. Cherry Farm, Sunnyside, Lake Alice; a great aunt (in-law) was a psychiatric nurse at the notorious Seacliff Hospital, just north of Dunedin. That was a time when shock and horror wasn't just a turn of phrase. It was there Janet Frame was almost given a frontal lobotomy.

It's been disturbing; listening to people calling for a return to those bad old ways, when any of us deemed to have mental health challenges were basically locked up from the outside world. The fallout from the unthinkable recent scenes in the United States is already fuelling comment along those lines. That is - if we could only get back to the days of institutionalising folk, fewer would have the chance to go murderously nuts in public.

New Zealand hasn't been immune to a similar debate. Blissfully light on mass-muderers, we've nonetheless been exposed to a frightening amount of serious crime committed, intentionally or otherwise, by people with mental health issues. Fairly recently, too. Neighbours have been murdered. Ex-girlfriends killed; mothers slain. Flatmates have been beaten to death in the night. It might not all have been caused by mental illness but it's hard not to notice the trend.

In terms of a flag, you'd think it might be worth paying more attention. New Zealand's gun laws might prevent the worst excesses of a poorly-resourced mental health programme but the danger signs still appear fairly obvious. Why isn't anything happening? Seems successive governments would prefer to stigmatise mental health patients; blame 'em, lock 'em up and call 'em evil, than fund a responsible level of services in the community.

Forget returning to institutionalism. Lurching from the present unsatisfactory system back to a former unsatisfactory system hardly seems an exercise in common-sense. Quite apart from that, one of the main reasons against locking up people with mental health issues still applies. Costs too much. It's just a pity authorities haven't seen fit to better fund the alternative option. I mean, if we really want healthy, safe communities, we should be prepared to pay for them.

How can we afford it? Consider the ramifications of getting it wrong and tell me how we cannot. Read this heart-rendering missive from Liza Long, entitled: "I am Adam Lanza's mother" and tell me you don't see the same problem in New Zealand. We're not so different. Rather than funding a competent mental health system, we're waiting for people to go off the rails and commit crime, at which stage the problem becomes one for the police and courts.

America's issue is more extreme; no argument  there. When it gets to the point all new entrant school children (ie: five year-olds) must be taught what to do in the case of a crazed gunman, you know you have a problem with your gun-laws. Or at least you should know. What do you get when you mix an inadequately funded mental health system with a culture in which military assault rifles can be purchased at the local supermarket? Well, we're finding out.

Kiwis are right to be worried about the lack of commitment our governments have shown towards mental health care. The stakes are far too high to ignore; we've been reminded of that throughout the year. But rather than the idea of reverting to an old, failed and discredited system, isn't it time we started better funding the present one? Isn't it time more of our taxes were spent on the support and care of those suffering from mental illness?

Or is it true? Would we rather just paint them as villains?

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