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Survivor petitions parliament for ‘urgent’ mental health reform

A young woman who survived eight suicide attempts before the age of 20 has submitted a petition to parliament, calling for an urgent inquiry into our mental health system.

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Brooke Lacey has formally submitted a petition to the House for improved funding and training in the mental health sector. Source: 1 NEWS

Brooke Lacey, now 21, says she wants to tell her story publicly in the hope it will change the way agencies like DHBs and police respond to mental health crises.

It’s been a whirlwind year for the newly-minted campaigner, who is now 12 months into her recovery, after a long battle with depression and anxiety sparked by a family tragedy. During her teenage years, she made eight attempts on her own life, beginning at the age of just 13.

“I didn't see a future, quite honestly, this year, I didn't think I was going to make it into 2020,” she told 1 NEWS this week.

“Obviously I had some hope in there, which I think is why I'm still here, it’s because deep down inside of me, I thought I had a future. I didn't know what that was, I didn't know what it was going to be, and I then I think within all of this, I found a purpose.”

That new purpose has inspired Lacey, who recently moved from Christchurch to Wellington to study full-time, to bring a petition to parliament, calling for a better crisis response within the mental health system”.

Driven by a desire for change, she started gathered signatures and approaching MPs for help, including National’s mental health spokesperson, Matt Doocey, before bringing the final piece all the way to parliament.

Suddenly, in a moment she never could have imagined as a teenager, she found herself watching on as her name echoed across the debating chamber, and the Clerk of the House stood to receive her petition.

“I'm pretty proud of myself, because it's been a journey, but everything's just amazing,” she said.

“We might not be able to change the world, but by putting better protocols in place, better funding, suicide prevention, then you're saving a life. And when you save this one life, you're saving what is the world to many people.”

She has been advised in the process by Doocey, who describes her story as one of “devastation, but also hope”.

“What is parliament for, if it's not listening to people and their stories, and making real change for the benefit of New Zealanders,” he said.

“It's tough, you're baring your soul, you're telling very personal stories, but you can tell by how Brooke is motivated she knows by telling her story, she will connect to others who will have a similar story.”

The petition calls for an urgent inquiry to “correct the crisis response”, including additional training for police responding to mental health crises, and an early intervention focus at other agencies to support patients before a crisis develops.

Lacey said her passion comes from personal experience with the system, including one incident when she came to hospital for help but was told she “wasn’t sick enough”.

“I didn't want to be here, I made that known to them, and they said because I hadn't actively tried to take my life yet, that they couldn’t see me,” she said.

Dr Dougal Sutherland, a clinical psychologist at Victoria University of Wellington, said the experience is a common one.

“I think our mental health services and DHBs are really in a critical condition at the moment,” he said.

“We regularly come across people saying, ‘hey, look I tried to get assistance from mental health services, but they turned me away saying that I wasn't severe enough, I wasn't unwell enough to get assistance from them’.

“Unless you're really, really, really desperate, and really, really, really struggling, DHBs are just saying, ‘look you don't meet our threshold, you don't meet our criteria and you'll have to go and seek help somewhere else’.”

The Ministry of Health this week admitted specialist mental health services are “known to be under pressure”, particularly crisis services, and said all DHBs received funding this year to improve this.

It added that $1.9 billion was set aside in the 2019 Budget to address mental health, including $883 million for mental health and addiction services.

“The Government has committed to transforming our approach to mental health and addiction over the next ten years and has committed significant funding,” they said in a statement.

“We would want people to know that if they need help, support and health services are available and do make a difference.”

Lacey has also called for improvements to police training, saying they are at the front line, and their interactions “can actually be make or break for people”.

She says her own interactions with officers as a teenager were very distressing.

“Their approach in this is to treat people like a criminal, and I don't blame them, I think it's just the training they've had,” she said.

A police spokesperson said their officers do receive training as recruits and regular refreshers but added they are “currently working with partners and those with lived experience to improve our training and deliver the service that New Zealanders expect and deserve”.

It’s a large part of their work-load, with officers responding to 61,710 calls for service to mental health-related calls in 2019, up 12 percent on the year before.

They have been running a 12 month trial of a new inter-agency Co-Response Team, or CRT, in Wellington since March 2019, bringing in staff from the local DHB and ambulance, to provide what they’re calling a “health-lead approach”.

The question is whether those agencies are doing enough, to overcome the challenges they face.

Dr Sutherland says he is yet to see evidence that the large amount of funding that’s been promised is flowing into the system.

“Our services have been so underfunded for so long, that everywhere is stretched thinly,” he said.

“We really need full investment across all levels of mental health services, whether that's primary and prevention, whether that's secondary level.”

As for Lacey, this is just the start - in a few months she’ll be called to speak to a select committee.

She’s vowing to continue the fight, and hopes her story will inspire anyone in their own struggle.

“There’s always hope, at the end of everything,” she said.

“It gets better, just keep going.”

Source: TVNZ