Breakfast host on The Hits, columnist for nzherald.co.nz Life & Style.

Polly Gillespie: Our mental health system isn't working

I am writing this, not as an expert in mental healthcare, nor as an expert in anything in particular, but I have been a patient in a mental healthcare facility myself.  Photo / Supplied
I am writing this, not as an expert in mental healthcare, nor as an expert in anything in particular, but I have been a patient in a mental healthcare facility myself. Photo / Supplied

I opened up Facebook and was doing the Sunday "scrollaxing" (scrolling through my newsfeed while relaxing on the couch) and stopped on a friend's latest post, a picture of her son with this message:

"This is my son David. I was able to give him some money in ______ last night. He can't talk to me right now as he thinks I am the devil and he can't stay at his Dad's right now either. He has been away for twelve days now. I don't think he has a regular place to stay. However, he is in______regularly and I will ask the staff at one of the stores (they say he looks a bit spooked) to give him some things that will help. I will check out what internet cafe he is using. The police are looking out for him too and will help as best they can. Please let them know if you think David is in trouble at all. He may like some company, a chat, and will never turn down a coffee or a ciggie. I would be very grateful if you would keep an eye out for him and make sure he knows he is not alone. If you are not in or near ________then if you feel like it you could let the MInister of Health know about the dire conditions our mental health staff work in, and the appalling lack of facilities and support that is available, then that would be your way of helping me. Thank-you."

This post was written by a woman who I will call Paula. Paula is not her name and David is not her son's name, but there are Paula's deeply concerned about their David's up and down the length of this country. She is an educated, bright, caring and inspiring woman. She is normal like you and me. There was no way Paula expected her son to become schizophrenic. But here she is today posting a plea of help for her son as she sits at her desk and cries, and cries, and cries. I just messaged her and she is still crying. Crying as she tries to think of any way she can get help for her terribly ill son.

I may get no thanks from my extended family for revealing this, but my grandfather on my mother's side died in a mental health facility. He died of lung and heart disease, but he resided in an Auckland mental health facility for the last years of his life He lost his parents to tuberculosis as a young child in London, and was brought up by a physically and emotionally abusive grandfather. He lost his wife in his 30s, and was left to raise four young children on his own.

During World War 1 he had been such a fine soldier and great leader they commissioned him from the ranks of the non-commissioned. He was a good man who had an excruciatingly tough life. In the end, depression took over and a life of hardship took its shadowy toll. My grandfather died before I was born, but I am grateful there was somewhere for him to feel safe and get the care he needed. I know he wasn't abused or treated poorly in the hospital where he lived his final years.

I am writing this, not as an expert in mental healthcare, nor as an expert in anything in particular, but I have been a patient in a mental healthcare facility myself, and I have seen a decline in the care of the mentally ill over the past couple of decades. Now I see posts from a friend asking anyone and everyone she knows to try and help save her son's life, and help him find his sanity. Mental healthcare workers are overworked and under funded. What to do...

In my own small world over the past 20 years I have spent most of it in that "bubble" I have referred to before. I was trying to have children, having children, raising them, and concentrating on keeping a job and keeping everyone fed, loved and educated. I vaguely remember reports of the Government deciding to close down mental healthcare facilities and getting people back into the community. I seem to also recall feeling a little uneasy about that.

My concern wasn't for my safety, or worry that mentally ill people would be living next door. No. I was more concerned for the actual people who needed constant care. Having had a strange breakdown in my early 20s, just as I'd begun my radio career, I had been admitted - much to my horror - to a psychiatric ward. I was in a town I'd only lived in for a couple of months, flatting with a girl I'd only known for a couple of months, and all of a sudden I'm in a hospital because I can't sleep, eat, or stop shaking. I truly thought I'd somehow contracted malaria.

Not a common complaint in Gisborne though it turns out. Had I not been admitted to hospital I'm not sure what would have happened. Thank God they helped me, and I will always be grateful for that incredibly strange but important adventure. I was in a ward with all types of people, and had I not seen what I saw, or witnessed what I witnessed, I may not be as terribly concerned right now that there are not as many places for mentally ill and psychiatrically unwell people to live, be it for two weeks, two years, or longer.

The idea of very ill people being placed out in the big bad world of normal living may have seemed like a great experiment, and certainly an excellent way to save money, but I question whether it's safe, or if it's working. Is it working for David or Paula? Absolutely not. Is it working for families who live in fear for their lives because their children believe them to be Satan? Is it a safe place we live in when a poor mother has to watch her incredibly ill son live on the street afraid of shadows or demons and even his own home?

Our country does nothing better than rallying, as is evident every time there is an earthquake. It is in a crisis that our communities and individuals rally around. All the good people rise to the top and show their incredible spirit and generosity with service and comfort. I am pleased to report that the people working in the area where David is existing, are also truly rallying.

The young, minimum-wage workers in and around the mall where he seeks some kind of solace have spent hours and hours of their own time sitting with him, feeding him, talking with him and giving great comfort to his mother. What wonderful hearts and souls so many of the much-maligned millennial generation have.

Our mental health system isn't working. The workers are overworked and the sick are not getting the care they need. As a country we are only as strong as our weakest. We need more care places and more workers. We need a better mental health system.

It's getting dark now on a Sunday evening. Paula cries at home hoping her son is safe, and David is out there not knowing the difference between reality and his nightmares.

- NZME.

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Breakfast host on The Hits, columnist for nzherald.co.nz Life & Style.

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