24 Jul 2023

Mental health expert on Kiri Allan facing criminal charges

From Checkpoint, 5:34 pm on 24 July 2023

The head of the Mental Health Foundation says troubled former minister Kiri Allan should be held responsible for her actions, but the public also need to be understanding of the difficulty of navigating mental health issues in high-stress positions.

The former justice minister was arrested on Sunday night after a car crash in Wellington.

She was charged with careless use of a motor vehicle and refusing to accompany a police officer, and issued an infringement notice for having excess breath alcohol between 250 and 400mcg. As a result, she has resigned from all of her portfolios.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson told Checkpoint the situation required a mix of empathy and responsibility.

"We need to be still responsible for our actions."

Robinson said as a person with bipolar disorder himself, "I want to be treated as a person and judged on my work, and I think with politicians, anybody in the public eye, it's the same thing.

"Kiri Allan needs to be judged and be accountable and be responsible for her actions. At the same time, we need to have compassion for people's mental distress.

Allan had been on leave over mental health issues and problems in her personal life before her return to Parliament last week, and also faced accusations of bullying conduct.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins makes a law and order announcement with Justice Minister Kiri Allan on 19 July, 2023.

Kiri Allan.  Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"I think anybody in a high-stress job who went through a relationship breakup would have a significant amount of mental stress and we should all have compassion for anybody that is in that situation."

Robinson said questions need to be asked about what kind of support Allan was receiving.

She told Prime Minister Chris Hipkins she was ready to return, but "sometimes it's hard to judge if we are through the worst", he said.

On the other hand, "It's not always true that being away from work is the best thing" when you're trying to work through an issue, Robinson said.

"I don't think we should expect anybody to get it right 100 percent of the time."

While Allan has resigned from her ministerial portfolios and is reportedly considering her future in politics, Robinson said it does not mean an end of her professional life by any means.

"This need not be the end of her political career, but she does need to be accountable for what has happened in this particular instance."

Opposition political leaders have acknowledged the seriousness of addressing mental health in cases like Allan's.

"I think it's very important that we don't look at times of mental distress or mental health challenges and go, well, once that's happened you're broken and you're never able to do a stressful piece of work again.

"I live with bipolar disorder, I've been a chief executive five times. I'm a damn good chief executive, thank you very much, but I still have times when I'm grappling with my depression, anxiety and symptoms of my bipolar.

"It is absolutely possible to be high-functioning, to have a positive outlook on life and be a contributor in all aspects of your life and have times when you're struggling with your mental health and wellbeing.

"In fact if we're all honest, almost everybody in New Zealand falls into that category, because the evidence would show that well over 80 percent of us will experience a time of significant mental distress at some point in our lives.

"Now if that meant we were all a write-off and could never do anything significant, meaningful or productive, then we'd be in a pretty sorry state."