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Mental health system failed Christchurch woman left in jail while suffering episodes of psychosis, family says

When a 34-year-old Christchurch woman suffering episodes of psychosis after a medication change needed help the most - she ended up in prison.

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The woman’s family says the events which led to her imprisonment are a sign of a mental health system that's failing to care for those in need. Source: 1 NEWS

A lack of forensic mental health beds saw her stay extended to around one month in total.

“I felt really claustrophobic, quite distressed,” she said. “I already have my own stuff going on. I’m in my own prison, so being in there was like being in two prisons at once.”

The woman has not been named for privacy reasons.

Her family has complained to the Health and Disability Commission about her care. Relative Katie Duncan says the events that led to her first prison stint was a sign of a system that has failed to care for those in need.

“It was absolutely devastating for her to be in prison,” she said. “As someone who had been essentially mistreated by the mental health system for 21 years, to then instead of receiving the care she needed to receive, was sitting alone in a prison cell instead of being nurtured.”

She says her relative has had a long and complex medical history that was, for the most part, stable.

But in January a decision was made to change her official diagnosis and the medication she’d been on for 21 years. They quickly noticed a change in her behaviour, which her family says were clear cries for help.

“Lying in the middle of the road, jumping in the river, putting her life in danger, but also other lives in danger.”

It saw her go in and out of in-patient care over the subsequent months, before she was finally arrested and put on remand in prison.

Her release was delayed as there were eight other people ahead of her on the forensic mental health bed waitlist in Christchurch.

Figures from the Ministry of Health show across all DHBs, most were at or beyond capacity in the last year, with Capital and Coast DHB being among the hardest hit at 118 per cent.

Canterbury’s 37 beds were at an average 85 per cent full across the year.

The Royal Australia and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists chair of forensic psychiatry, Dr Justin Barry-Walsh, says delays in getting people out of prison and into a forensic unit is “unfortunate and disturbing”.

“There is a clear shortage.”

He says recent government investment has helped, but there was still a long way to go.

“The difficulty remains that there just aren’t enough in-patient beds to be able to quickly and appropriately move people.

“It is profoundly distressing and really awful for the individual and, indeed, the staff and secondly, when there are delays in treatment it becomes more difficult.”

He says it also has a knock-on effect on the criminal justice system causing delays in the court process.

The Christchurch woman’s family say she should never have been put in the criminal justice system in the first place.

Relative Nicola Eccleton says the deterioration in her health came because of the lack of support and structure.

“They want her to learn to live with her diagnosis with no support at all,” she said. “She’s expected to be living independently with a few check-ins and we think that is unacceptable because she’s not able to keep herself safe.”

Janine Mullin is a mental health advocate who was once arrested and put in a jail cell after she suffered a severe bout of anxiety.

“It’s not fair,” she said. “The tricky thing with mental health, when people are in crisis, they can sometimes be violent, their behaviour can be destructive.

“I don’t think there is any other medical emergency that would mean somebody ends up locked in a police cell.”

The Christchurch woman says she just wishes people would give her a chance to heal.

“I’m not a vicious person, I’m not nasty - it’s just that I’ve been through a huge amount of trauma,” she said. “I’ve got a lot of good qualities and I’ve never really had a chance at life; to shine in those qualities or to have good friends and to connect with people.”