On April 24th Life Matters hosted our Breaking the Silence event. We want to extend a huge thanks to all those who attended and especially to our panelists: Maria Dillon, Abigail Clark, James Sutherland, Tiana Mihere, Hahna Briggs and Jane Stevens.
Each of our amazing panelists shared powerful stories of personal loss and their own experiences navigating the Mental Health system. What emerged throughout the evening were some common threads which tie these stories together. These same threads are woven through the stories of the attendees who were brave enough to speak at the event, and in the results of our recent online survey. The survey invited members of the public to share their own experiences of the Mental Health system so we can ensure they reach the Mental Health Inquiry panel. We received over 500 submissions and the results, while unsurprising, are harrowing.
By collating this information we are working to identify what these frayed ends look like in the hope that we can stop vulnerable people from falling through the cracks.
Difficulty accessing services
By far the biggest hurdle to getting care is having the concerns for yourself or your loved-one taken seriously, quickly. Again and again we have received reports of 3 month waiting lists for psychiatric assessment, “not enough beds” available in crisis wards, people turned away because their mental-state or destructive behaviours are not being deemed “urgent” enough and because they do not meet the “criteria”. It seems that the system is set up to provide care only in the most urgent circumstances, and help is not available to those who are not immediately suicidal. We need to be helping people before they get to that point.
In the same vein, many people report being discharged before they were ready, when they still felt they posed a threat to themselves or others. Again and again we hear stories of people turned away from Mental Health services in times of crisis and, feeling they have no other option, taking their own lives.
Cost is also a barrier to a huge amount of people, who, having been given 6+ weeks to see a psychiatrist in the public system, have no choice but to wait. We have received feedback from people who did get appropriate care privately, thankful that they had the funds and resources to access the support that saved their lives.
Yet another barrier to help is drug-use or addiction. In many cases, if a suicidal person is using drugs, the Mental Health department will refuse to help, insisting they seek help for their drug use. If this is not viable or realistic, addiction services will not help them either, leading to them being bounced back and forth between services and too easily falling through the cracks.
Access to services is difficult enough but it is important to acknowledge that for marginalised groups the difficulties are compounded. Some of these groups include our youth, men, Maori and the LGBTQ+ community, who all face unique struggles along the path to mental wellness.
Lack of compassion
Judgemental, demeaning, dismissive, isolating, cold, clinical, unhelpful and unwilling to listen to family members; just some of the words used to describe encounters with the Mental Health system. Many respondents also acknowledge that Mental Health professionals are often underpaid and overworked, struggling on the frontline of a much larger battle. It is worth noting that there is also a lot of praise for those working within the system, but the callousness of the system itself leads to huge pressures on staff. It goes to show that this issue runs deep, and sees an unhealthy culture perpetuating unhealthy outcomes.
Lack of follow-up
Too often, after seeing a health professional or being discharged from a ward, people are left to their own devices. Time and time again, people have reported being told they would receive a phone call or visit from a professional checking in on their progress, but these phone calls/visits never come. At a time where wrap-around support is crucial to the ongoing wellbeing of the patient, it just isn’t there.
There is also inadequate access to respite facilities and, on occasion, service users have been discharged with no place to go. If a patient is discharged into the care of family, it is unlikely that the family with receive any ongoing support. They are left concerned and afraid, with the huge responsibility to save the life of their loved one.
Inadequate support for families and loved ones
After a suicide, comes grief. Huge, monumental, incomprehensible grief. While navigating this grief a family is also then confronted by the vicious bureaucratic realities of death: funeral expenses, tying up loose ends, debt collection agencies, legal matters and, too often, questions of culpability. The system provides no support or guidance at this point, and in some cases, isolate the family entirely, refusing accountability and silencing the family’s concerns.
Here at Life Matters we believe that legal support should be provided, free-of-charge, to families bereaved by suicide. Families mourning the loss of a loved one should not have to fight so hard for justice. Not alone.
Stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness is pervasive and serves to bolster all these barriers to help. Seeking help can be difficult for anybody, and because our society views mental illness through the lens of stigma, many people may be reluctant to receive a diagnosis which could lead to the help they need.
While our youth have access to counselling through school, there is the perception among them that this is not confidential, as school counsellors have been known to pass information forward to teachers. While we may be able to understand the reasoning for this, it is actually likely that it will prevent some kids from seeking the help they need. In some schools, there is little discretion, making it obvious that a child has an appointment. For this reason, many kids are reluctant to seek help when they need it because they don’t want others finding out. This shows how stigma itself acts as a barrier to support; we need to change the discourse and shift the message; It is okay to not be okay.
We should be committed to ending the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness. If we, as a society, can talk loudly about these issues that affect so many of us, then these barriers to support can be broken down.
Remember to look after yourself and loved ones. Use the helplines and ask for help from services. Contact us if you struggle to access help or need support in the aftermath.
We encourage everyone to contribute to the Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry and to connect with the panel if they come to a town near you. You can make an online submission or go to a public meeting. All information can be found on this website. www.mentalhealth.inquiry.govt.nz
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Healthline – 0800 611 116
Samaritans – 0800 726 666