'It's wrong that you have to commit a crime to get better help'

Keegan Jones, 23, went to Health Minister Jonathan Coleman with a proposal to screen high school students for mental ...

Keegan Jones, 23, went to Health Minister Jonathan Coleman with a proposal to screen high school students for mental health issues.

A convicted knife attacker with a long history of mental illness wants the Government to implement mental health check-ups in high schools – and the Government is listening.

Keegan Jones, 23, was sentenced to three years in prison back in 2014 after he held a knife to a taxi driver's throat and stole his cab.

He has spent the past 10 years in the mental health system, including the criminal forensic unit at the Henry Bennett Centre in Waikato, where he received the help he needed.

Alan Cooper, a New Plymouth Taxi driver, survived the incident in 2013 when Keegan Jones pulled a knife on him. Jones ...

Alan Cooper, a New Plymouth Taxi driver, survived the incident in 2013 when Keegan Jones pulled a knife on him. Jones was subsequently sent to prison for three years.

Jones has now come up with a proposal that so impressed Taranaki King Country MP Barbara Kuriger that she used her Airpoints to fly him to Wellington to talk to Health Minister Jonathan Coleman.

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When he first went to Kuriger, he was concerned he wouldn't have any credibility because of what he had done and the stereotype around being a beneficiary with a mental illness, Jones said. 

Keegan Jones, 23, who has been in the mental health system for 10 years, wants to help others in a similar situation.

Keegan Jones, 23, who has been in the mental health system for 10 years, wants to help others in a similar situation.

"The mental health system in New Zealand is at a crisis point," Jones said. "It's the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We focus and put money into the acute stages, and by then it's too late. By then people have gotten to the point where they are in a crisis state themselves." 

So, Jones proposed high schools had annual mental health checkups using a survey or questionnaire to identify and treat at risk youth. The screening would help catch people earlier and might also highlight family violence or bullying, he said.

"With this testing, it could go to a counsellor, and the counsellor could see red flags and the counsellor could then refer to the appropriate agencies to help this young person who is struggling to get the help they need." 

Jones was first hospitalised when he was 13 – his teenage years were a blur – but he didn't get the help he needed until he went to prison, he said.

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"It's disgusting that it took me to get that unwell and to be that, I don't know what the words are, that much of an unwell monster ... it took me to go into criminal forensics, criminal psychiatry, to actually to get me the help I needed. It's wrong that you have to commit a crime to get better help."

The mental health system let him down, he said. "I'm very remorseful about what happened. I did fall through the cracks, but that doesn't take away from what I did."

Kuriger, who is deputy chairwoman of the health select committee, said she took her hat off to Jones for coming forward.

"He is really passionate about doing some work with his peers. He wants to make it better. He's been in a place where he's really been in a struggle, and now he's coming up with ideas."

The Government put aside $100 million in the budget for a social investment fund to look at new proposals to tackle mental health issues, she said.

"Keegan had a good session with Minister Coleman, and he has taken the ideas away to have a look at." 

New Zealand's representative on the International Association for Suicide Prevention, Sylvia Huitson, said the screening idea was good but had to be done correctly.

"The screening has to have a robust way of follow up and how you are going to deal with what you find."

But it might pick up contributing factors to suicide—anxiety, depression and childhood trauma, she said.

"Hopefully, you can can do an intervention early on, so people don't carry that stuff to a point where it gets too much. I hope Jonathan listens."

 - Sunday Star Times


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