Woman found dead shortly before planned discharge from mental health facility

By Martin Johnston

The woman was on leave from Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre in Hamilton. Photo / Christine Cornege
The woman was on leave from Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre in Hamilton. Photo / Christine Cornege

A woman on leave from a Hamilton psychiatric hospital has been found dead near the Waikato River, shortly before her planned discharge from the mental health facility.

The 24-year-old was a voluntary patient of the Waikato District Health Board's mental health services. She had been given leave to go out without a staff member and failed to return. Her body was found in bushes near the river.

Her death comes nearly three months after the Ministry of Health published what the Green Party called a "damning" report on the DHB's mental health services.

Questions have been raised about Waikato's mental health services since the death of Nicky Stevens in March last year. Aged 21, Stevens was found dead in the Waikato River, after being released from the Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre, a DHB psychiatric facility.

The ministry said its investigation followed a patient suicide, unplanned departures of three patients and the employment of an overseas-trained doctor as a psychiatrist who subsequently faced court charges related to identity fraud.

Green Party health spokesman Kevin Hague has said the ministry was forced to act after Stevens' death and other incidents.

Today, he said that although some of the circumstances of Stevens' death were different from the death of the 24-year-old woman, there were also "sufficient similarities to cause me to wonder if her death could have been avoided".

Derek Wright, executive director of the DHB's mental health and addictions service, said: "We can't confirm the exact circumstances of this woman's tragic death, due to patient and family privacy.

"The matter will be referred to the coroner and the DHB will conduct a serious-event review into the death.

"We can say that she was an informal patient who was transitioning to live in the community." She died while on unescorted leave the night before she was to be discharged home, Wright said.

"Once it was clear that she had not returned as arranged, and was not in the immediate environs of the Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre, the police were notified and staff worked closely with the police and family in attempting to locate her.

"We have been closely engaged with the family over this woman's care. Any death like this is a tragedy for the family and we are now supporting them through this difficult time, as well as supporting our staff. The family are happy with the care she received and have asked that their privacy be respected at this time."

The police said the woman's body was found on July 7 and her death had been referred to a coroner.

In April, the ministry's investigation report highlighted short-staffing and staff burn-out at the DHB's mental health services. The report said the DHB needed to focus on immediate staffing relief in critical areas to reduce "staff burn-out and churn, fill vacancies and improve staff retention".

The ministry said many of the report's recommendations supported changes already planned by the DHB.

In the wake of the Waikato review, the Greens demanded a nationwide inquiry into mental health services.

Earlier in April, a report on the Northland DHB mental health inpatient unit at Whangarei Hospital found it was crisis-driven, practised a medication-driven model of care and staff felt overworked, undervalued and unsafe.

The Northland DHB said many of the recommendations made in the report were already planned.

Hague said DHBs' mental health services were under-resourced, under-staffed and faced increased numbers of patients.

" ... practically every day brings a fresh story to my office of something that has gone disastrously wrong in mental health services from everywhere around the country. The problem is not just in one or two DHBs, and there is sufficient frequency and consistency about these stories to suggest strongly that the problems are systemic, not idiosyncratic.

"Some obvious measures required are a major funding lift, direction and oversight restored through reinstatement of the Mental Health Commission, reintroduced mental health targets -- and an urgent, nationwide inquiry along the lines of the Mason inquiries."

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman has highlighted the Government's increased funding for mental health and addiction services. It had risen from from $1.1 billion in 2008/9 to more than $1.4 billion for 2015/16. The May Budget added $12 million over four years to increase support for primary care and social services to enable people to access mental health help earlier.

Where to get help

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- NZ Herald

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