Complaints of recreational drugs being smuggled into Hutt Hospital's mental health unit and shared among vulnerable patients are being investigated by the Ministry of Health.
The mother of an in-patient at the acute mental health unit, who was admitted under a compulsory treatment order, says she was appalled when staff revealed that her son had been given cannabis by another patient.
The ministry has confirmed an investigation has been started after Lyn Copland complained that her 30-year-old son, who has bipolar disorder and psychosis, had gained access to the drug.
A district inspector is also looking into allegations that her son was locked up in seclusion five times in two weeks, once with his cellphone when he texted family members to say he had been shut up with no water.
"I'm just floored by it," Ms Copland said. "Somebody like my son, because he's under a compulsory treatment order and is locked in the secure part and is seriously ill, I understand that it's up to the doctors and nurses to maintain his safety to himself and others."
She said doctors told her he had smoked cannabis with another patient after walking over to the general unit on his own. He is supposed to be under supervision at all times.
It was not clear whether it was real cannabis or the synthetic kind, but either way he should not have had access to it, she said.
"I said, ‘Where was the nurse who was meant to be with him?' and they couldn't answer.
"They said the problem is that patients or relatives are bringing this in, bringing synthetic highs and marijuana into the ward."
She said her son should not have taken the drug. "I mean, he's stupid and I told him off, but the thing is he's not acting normal because of his illness.
"When he's well he's a very intelligent young man, but he's very vulnerable at the moment."
The unit was "chaotic" and short-staffed. Patients often got into fist fights, and were kept in seclusion too often, Ms Copland said.
"Other people have lashed out at him, he's lashed out at other people, and then they drag him in and lock him up."
The Government's aim was to stop the use of seclusion - defined as forcibly confining or restraining a person in isolation in a room that is often kept barely furnished.
Hutt Valley District Health Board has one of the highest rates of seclusion in the country.
The health board would not say if recreational drug use was a problem at the unit, saying only that: "The mental health unit promotes a zero tolerance approach to illegal and synthetic drug use."
The board said it had been in close contact with Ms Copland and supported her through her son's hospital admissions.
"[Her] concerns have been raised with the Ministry of Health and the district inspectors, and we will work through any concerns they identify."
There were occasionally physical altercations between patients, the board said. These events were reviewed to prevent further disturbances.
"Even with well laid out care plans and systems, events can still occur."
Seclusion was allowed under the Mental Health Act, but was used as a safety mechanism.
It was a requirement for patients to have access to food and fluids during seclusion.
The unit had a full staff of doctors and nurses, but did have a shortfall of registrars, which "has had an impact on the availability of medical time", it said. Two locum psychiatrists had been hired in the meantime.
Ministry of Health director of mental health John Crawshaw said he was keeping a watching brief on the investigation into the man's treatment.
"The ministry will work with the DHB on putting in place any actions . . . that may arise from the district inspector's investigation."
Last year, the Hutt Valley mental health unit was the subject of an investigation under section 95 of the Mental Health Act into systemic issues.
- The Dominion Post