Waikato DHB board member wants mental patient smoking rules relaxed
A Hamilton city councillor is pushing for more smoking freedom in mental-health units.
"When someone is in severe mental distress, basically, whether or not they smoke is hardly the most urgent thing," Waikato District Health Board member Dave Macpherson said.
The issue will be discussed in the chief executive's report at the DHB meeting next Wednesday.
Macpherson made this request in the light of the death of 21-year-old Chelsea Brunton, who left the Palmerston North Hospital mental health ward for a cigarette on May 6 and did not return.
Macpherson said it is unsafe for people admitted into mental health units, often with an increased risk of suicide, to venture outside to smoke.
"People need to be kept safe, that's the whole point of them going in there, really," Macpherson said.
"It's hardly keeping someone safe if you're telling them you can go out in the street to smoke, which is what happens at every hospital in the country."
Ministry of Health-operated organisation Quitline reports that about a third of cigarettes in New Zealand are smoked by people with a mental illness.
Macpherson would like the courtyards in Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre to become designated smoking areas, or for an increase in staff available to accompany patients to areas where they can legally smoke.
While Macpherson is against cigarette smoking, he believes exceptional circumstances should be accounted for.
"They offer people the opportunity for smoking patches and things like this, the alternative nicotine, that's fine," he said. "But for many people, that's not the immediate need. They say, oh yeah, I'll have a go at that, but in the meantime, I just need a smoke.
"I've literally heard people say that, including my son."
Dave Macpherson's son Nicky Stevens, who suffered from schizophrenia, was a compulsory inpatient at the Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre in Hamilton in 2015.
On March 9, Stevens, 21, failed to return from an unsupervised 15-minute smoke break. His body was found in the Waikato River three days later.
Macpherson said he would receive calls from his son asking for him and his wife, Jane Stevens, to visit so they could take him outside for a smoke.
Acting on Smoking and Health (Ash) spokesman Boyd Broughton said Macpherson's proposal would not be in the best interest of the patients.
"There's research that shows that people with mental health issues, they want to stop smoking just as much as people without mental health issues.
"I would encourage them to investigate other options before implementing change that encourages the continuation of smoking," Broughton said.
Broughton said decreasing the prevalence of smoking in mental health units has been neglected, even during the 1990 Smoke Free Environment Act.
He said he would like to see more access to nicotine replacement therapy in mental health units before anyone looked at making it easier for patients to smoke.
"There needs to be more support," Broughton said. "It benefits everyone if they can stop."
The Mental Health Foundation was approached for comment, but a comment was not supplied by deadline.