16 Nov 2022

Mother deplores lack of support for those trapped in cycle of illness, drugs

11:19 am on 16 November 2022
Tania Scott and her son, Cody Te Poono

Psychologist Tania Scott says it's wrong people like her son, Cody Te Poono, can't get the mental health help they desperately need. Photo: RNZ / Jean Edwards

Only Cody Te Poono knows exactly what was going through his head when the family home burned to the ground one August afternoon in the Canterbury town of Ashburton.

Yet his account is one of an unreliable witness, a diagnosed schizophrenic tortured by a chorus of voices commanding him to destroy it all.

Cooking while in the grip of psychosis has all the ingredients of a recipe for disaster.

One minute Te Poono was dishing up hash browns, the next he was off to the dairy.

By the time he turned back, struck by the realisation something was horribly wrong, it was too late.

"The house was in flames, I could see the flames coming out of the window. I ran back to open the door but the flames were too much. I couldn't reach the fire extinguisher, so I just ran to the next-door neighbour and told her, quick, quick, get out," he said.

Numb with shock, Te Poono took off.

His mother found him distraught on the side of the road.

"I was in shock. I was so upset because it was my mum's house. They got me straight to Hillmorton, but I think it was just too late."

Cody Te Poono who is mental health patient in Christchurch

Cody Te Poono is upset that his mum has lost everything in a house fire. Photo: RNZ / Jean Edwards

Perhaps the episode did not have to end this way.

In the days before the fire, Te Poono, his mother Tania Scott and grandmother said they made repeated pleas for staff at Christchurch's Hillmorton Hospital to take him in.

Scott also contacted police who said they could not help without mental health advice.

Starving, sleep-deprived and off his regular medication, the 31-year-old had spiralled into psychosis.

Te Poono is adamant he was not using his drug of choice, synthetic cannabis.

"The voices were telling me to smash all my stuff, to break my windows and do nasty things. They were also telling me to hurt myself, stab myself with knives. I had a scratch on the side of my head from where I tried to stab myself with a knife," he said.

According to Te Poono, Hillmorton staff were not convinced he was having an acute mental health crisis.

"It made me feel horrible, like I had no options. The voices were the only thing I could turn to and they were telling me to do horrible things," he said.

After three months at Hillmorton, Te Poono was discharged on 1 November.

He said his emergency housing options were almost non-existent because of the fire.

Te Poono is also on probation for making threats at knife-point and has previously been asked to leave accommodation because of his behaviour, further limiting his choices.

Released to 'shocking accommodation'

While his mother frantically called a list of places from a hospital room, staff sent Te Poono off in a taxi to an associate's flat in Edgeware, where four men would be sharing a one-bedroom unit.

"At first they were going to release me to nowhere, that's really what shocked mum. They were going to release me to just the streets, pretty much," he said.

"It was shocking accommodation, full of drugs, utensils, there was no food, rubbish everywhere. We just thought it was one of the worst things they could have done upon my release."

Beside herself with worry, Scott collected her son and took him to the City Mission's men's shelter.

Days later she was searching for him on the streets, where he had already been assaulted and robbed.

Faced with an impossible choice, Scott has reluctantly brought him back under her roof, for now.

Scott, who is a registered psychologist, believes the mental health system is failing people like her son trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of illness, drug use and criminal offending.

Mental health staff were too slow to intervene when patients and their families pleaded for help and drug treatment was woefully inadequate, she said.

"Cody hasn't ever committed an offence where I haven't first said to mental health that he's really unwell and needs some respite care," she said.

"I feel like mental health is saying to me, let Cody commit the crime, but that's so unfair on the community and it's so unfair on him."

While Scott has been assured clinicians would be able to see her son more frequently, help him find accommodation and refer him for admission to Hillmorton if needed, she was not convinced staff will provide timely care.

She has written to Te Whatu Ora, the Health and Disability Commissioner and government ministers about the "shocking" lack of supported living and respite care for people with chronic, long-term mental illnesses, regardless of their lifestyle choices.

Tania Scott and her son, Cody Te Poono

Tania Scott is not convinced Cody Te Poono will get appropriate help when it's needed from Hillmorton Hospital. Photo: RNZ / Jean Edwards

Claim-appropriate support provided

While Te Whatu Ora does not comment on the care of individual patients, Canterbury's Specialist Mental Health Services general manager Greg Hamilton said people were discharged from Hillmorton with appropriate community support.

"The process of discharging a person from specialist mental health services is made in collaboration with the person, their whānau and community supports and their general practice team to ensure ongoing recovery, including support from social workers or community support workers to work on finding accommodation if wanted by the consumer," he said.

"Our aim is to provide services that are flexible, providing rapid increases in the care provided if this is required as well as carefully reducing support as the person recovers. This includes respite care if this is required clinically."

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Hillmorton Hospital in Christchurch. Photo: RNZ / Logan Church

Police are yet to interview Cody Te Poono about the fire, but Tania Scott believes they do not intend to charge him because of his mental health.

She cannot be sure he was even home when the blaze broke out.

A fire investigator has told her there was no evidence it was deliberately lit.

Scott lost everything in the fire and does not want to lose her son too.

"He's just so articulate, funny and caring when he's well, I'd just like him to be like that all the time. I don't think he's a criminal, I don't think he belongs in jail," she said.

The voices have reduced to a whisper now that Te Poono is taking his medication and trying to stay drug-free.

He longs for a job, a place to call home and maybe a girlfriend one day, but is forever grateful for the unconditional love of his mum.

"I'm just so lucky, so lucky that I've got a mum that cares so much," he said.

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)

Asian Family Services: 0800 862 342 Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm or text 832 Monday to Friday 9am - 5pm. Languages spoken: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English.

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

OUTLine: 0800 688 5463 (6pm-9pm)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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