12 Feb 2016

Shining a light on the mental health system

1:16 pm on 12 February 2016

“You have no idea the can of worms you are opening”.

This was one of the first responses to last year’s callout for people who’d been through the mental health system. I smirked, after reading that email, thinking I knew things could get pretty dire because of a close friend’s experience (he’s now dead). I was wrong.

I, too, have my own struggles with mental health and faced suicide two years ago. I had a difficult time when I first sought help, but thankfully my experience at Ponsonby’s Taylor Centre showed the system in a better light.

READ more stories from Jess McAllen: 

> Turned away in a crisis

Locked up in seclusion

An anarchist with a death wish

I’m still yet to have counselling due to six month waiting lists and - thanks Auckland renting scene -  me mucking things up by moving suburbs so often. Even if your new flat is a five minute walk from your old one (think Ponsonby to Eden Terrace), if it falls into a different catchment area you have to effectively start from scratch on waiting lists.

Mental health care is a gamble. Roll the dice: you get a bad therapist, a day when there's no beds, a stressed hotline worker. Roll again: you get a doctor who gives you their cellphone number to call while you are on the mental health waiting list, a caseworker who actually listens and advocates for you.

But it shouldn't be this way. We wouldn't leave any other disease or risky activity up to such chance. I don’t think the system is inherently broken, but it’s reaching breaking point. There are far more good people in mental health care than not but when it fails, it fails too hard. It fails so badly we can’t simply brush off all deaths as “to be expected when dealing with mental illness”.

Jess McAllen


Before Christmas, working on this series started to take a toll. I had spent months asking for people to come forward with their stories and carefully had to navigate between those that could be verified by reports or documents and those that were too sick - people so vulnerable that it would simply not be ethical to publish their story, whether they were manic, delusional or suicidal. Others were interviewed but then pulled out for fear of stigma, or worse, repercussion from DHBs when they needed mental health treatment again (admittedly, this makes me a little nervous too).

The requests for sources - via social media and word-of-mouth - shocked me. I thought I had a fair idea of how hard it was to get help. I was wrong.

By December I was getting phone calls from people on two month waiting lists, people who were suicidal, but since they hadn’t had an attempt couldn’t get any more serious help. I started to feel like I’d unwittingly declared myself a suicide hotline.

Even worse, since I’d been in these people’s shoes, having had the exact same experience, I felt like I had to answer to each and every message and phone call in explicit detail. At times I got too invested where I shouldn’t have. I now have a template email (about 500 words long) that I send out to people under 25, detailing how to get help, the best places with quickest wait times, and a bit about myself and how I am glad to still be alive. I also send it to concerned parents (such as one man whose son was posting about committing suicide on Facebook only to have a GP tell him “to be honest, mental health care isn’t very good”).

There were many other harrowing encounters. A woman was sending pictures to my Facebook after she’d harmed herself. A man was secluded under the Mental Health Act and his partner asked me to ring him in his mental health unit as they both felt he was being unfairly detained. A woman got frustrated when we couldn’t travel to her town (between RNZ’s travel budget and my personal funds there was nothing left). She said I didn’t care about vulnerable people like her. It stung. Semi-fortunately, I spilt coffee and broke my laptop so was forced to go on an internet hiatus for a week.

There was also a lot of trouble communicating with certain health officials in trying to get information and accountability for this series. The media team for Minister of Health, Jonathan Coleman, declined interviews for months, eventually only answering questions via email. Some DHBs said to refer questions to the Ministry of Health, only for the ministry to say the questions needed to be answered by the DHBs. There was one somewhat comical encounter where I requested an interview with Coleman to his press secretary who passed me onto a Ministry of Health media person, who passed me onto another Ministry of Health media person who replied “Any requests for interviews with Minister Coleman need to go to his press secretaries”.

When requesting information from the country’s 20 DHBs most were notably quick to respond - some going above and beyond in terms of commentary. However, we weren’t able to include data from Lakes DHB who refused to provide information unless we stumped up $1216 (at a rate of $76 per hour for the staff member collating information). A complaint has been made to the Ombudsman in regards to this lack of access to information.

The reaction to the two feature investigations has been telling. There’s been an outpouring of messages and emails - from family, friends, people who have been through the system, doctors and mental health nurses - expressing gratitude that it is finally “out there”.

There are also many stories we couldn’t run because of legal implications, particularly due to New Zealand’s restrictive laws on reporting suicides.

Mental illness is venomous; it seeps into you and knocks out all logic and reason that doesn’t twist into self destructive thoughts. In early 2014, I couldn’t go anywhere without seeing death or plotting suicide. It was somewhere as ludicrous as a bus, as beautiful as the sea. When your mind is that unwell it seizes on every opportunity.

Two years later, I still get depressed, I’m yet to find a miraculous cure to my panic attacks and suicidal thoughts occasionally flicker into my mind but I no longer seriously entertain them. This is largely through finding the right medication cocktail, building a good support network and finding passion in my job.

I came through. My experience has made me stronger, wiser, more compassionate. Suicide is a very dark hole to crawl into and climb out of - but when you are out, it makes the sunshine all the sweeter.

I’ve spent four months working on these stories and without a doubt can say the system needs a huge shake-up. We had 564 people die by suicide last year. I spoke to many people that narrowly avoided being part of our yearly suicide statistic. I am one of those people.

While it’s probably impossible to aim for zero suicides, I honestly think we could halve our suicide rate if the system was adequately resourced so that people get help when they first admit something is wrong. Hell, at this stage I’d even be happy with a response the second time someone asked for help.


If you need to talk to someone about your own mental health, try these helplines. If it is an emergency, call 111.

Lifeline - 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757

Healthline - 0800 611 116

Samaritans - 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Youthline - 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz