One of the country’s most troubled mental health units is set to get a $100 million upgrade, but the parents of Nicky Stevens, who died while under the centre’s care, say what’s needed is better preventative mental health services.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday announced the outdated Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre would be replaced with a $100 million acute mental health facility.
Nicky Stevens’ mother, Jane Stevens, called Ms Ardern’s announcement four-and-a-half years after her son’s death a meaningful response.
"This has been a hugely personal journey for us, and I think it does signal that there is an intent to make the transformational changes that we have been working really hard to see," she told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning.
However, Ms Stevens said that the new facility "is just a building, and it is one piece of the puzzle".
Mr Stevens committed suicide while under the facility's care in March 2015 after going outside unsupervised for a cigarette. His body was later discovered in the Waikato River. It took staff one hour to realise Mr Stevens was missing from the medium-security wing.
In a 2018 report, Coroner Wallace Bain criticised the centre, saying their standard of care was well below what Mr Stevens and his family should have expected, and that his death could have been avoided.
"We really want to put the focus on providing preventative mental health services in the community so that people like Nicky don't end up in places like the Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre," she said.
Dave Macpherson, Mr Stevens' father, said the objective is "that you reduce the need for acute mental health services like this".
Ms Stevens called the 21-year-old "one of many, many people that haven't been able to access the services", adding that families are "really dependent on the expertise within the health system".
"Initially, we didn't know what he needed and we tried everything we could to get him help," she said. "Right from a young age – I think he was about 12 – and it wasn't until he got into a crisis situation where he was acutely unwell that we actually managed to get into the system and that has to change.
"People shouldn't have to become acutely unwell to be able to access services."
Mr Macpherson said that "one of the things that probably upset us a lot was after Nicky died", adding that they had a number of service agencies approach them to ask why they had not been contacted prior to his death.
"We had a number of service agencies say to us, 'Oh, why didn’t you come and see us?' and that, and we hadn't been given information about that. We'd been asking for help, we'd asked for respite care when he was a teenager, and we just weren't getting offered that.
"It seems like some of those services may have been out there for a few people, but they weren't available to us and we're reasonably skilled at trying to find out what's available.
"I'd hate to think what other families have had to go through."
They said a person must reach crisis point to receive help, after which the police and emergency services are called in.
Ms Stevens recalled, "One of the worst moments, I think, for me, was when the police came and took my son away and I remember that day and that look of hurt in his eyes that, you know, he was taken to services by the police. He was dragged off in a police car – that should never happen. Never, ever.
"People need to be treated with respect and dignity, and the reason the police were involved was because there was nobody else available. Where were mental health services? I never want to see that happen again.
"That's why we've both been fighting really hard to be part of the change that needs to happen for our people, and we really want to see much more effort put into building our strong communities, local solutions and support for families so we don’t get to this point.
"Our son paid the ultimate price and I know people are saying that this building is a kind of legacy to Nicky, but the real legacy will be that everybody gets the healthcare that they need."
Mr Macpherson added, "It's nuts we've got things the wrong way round in New Zealand in terms of support for people with mental health issues."
Ms Stevens said while it is good that money is being put towards a new facility, the family would like to see the facilities made redundant.
"We want people to be supported right back in the early stages before things get serious," she said. "We want people to be aware and educated about mental health and for the silencing and stigma around mental health to be a thing of the past.
"Once we actually sit up and acknowledge the underlying causes of things like mental health and we start to get information and support out there, I think that’s when we’re going to start to see change happening."