Robin Guy: Compassion measured in sparse dollars

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Robin Guy's friend died on a railway track, after a long struggle with mental illness. Photo / Kellie Blizard
Robin Guy's friend died on a railway track, after a long struggle with mental illness. Photo / Kellie Blizard

On Monday my friend Carl died - under the wheels of a train. He would not have meant to disrupt the lives of rush-hour commuters. Nor would he have wanted to cause distress to the train crew. Perhaps from the "other side" he will let me apologise on his behalf.

Sorry.

Perhaps it's ironic that, in seeking release from pain, his life ended in one of the most painful ways possible. Perhaps he's at peace at last.

I met Carl six years ago when I was managing a trust committed to the housing of mentally ill people, and he was seeking accommodation.

He had mental illness, and he wished he hadn't. Paid work was not on his possible list, but he tinkered with old computers and other electronics. Necessary medication was resisted and he was not keen on mental health workers having input into his life. Consumption of alcohol became an important solace and painkiller, and increasingly a gripping addiction.

But, when you are incessantly abjectly poor, sick, in pain and bombarded day and night with negative voices in your head, what do you do? There seems no end to this and no way out, and there is no loving partner and children to come home to, no Christmas bonus to expect, no holiday in Paihia possible, no weekly outing to a restaurant.

As I sit in the afternoon sun and ponder, I think - there but for the grace of God go I. If I had Carl's life would I have handled it any differently?

Carl was just one of maybe 100,000 people in New Zealand with mental illnesses. Each is an individual, therefore different, but there are common factors. One being that for most there is no cure - just learning to manage and live with the ups and downs.

John Kirwan has been helpful in a national campaign promoting "normalisation" and acceptance of mental illness. Many people I know, though, don't have close, supportive families, reasonable incomes, or ability to travel.

Twenty-five years ago, the Government moved to close mental hospitals and moved patients into the community, except for a small number who it was deemed essential should stay in hospital, perhaps for safety reasons. For many, this move helped. For some, it didn't.

Today, while most mentally ill people live in the community, the government help they receive is measured in dollars, not support. Not what is best for the person, but how we can save money in this sector.

So, increasingly, mentally unwell people are living in costly rentals, subsisting on meagre benefits, and being pressured to cope with less and less clinical and paid social support. We don't yet know what sort of future this may create.

There will be more "Carls" who will struggle to find in their lives that the positives outweigh the negatives. Is the pain and sadness worth it?

I will celebrate the life of Carl and give grateful thanks for what he has taught me. For him, suffering (yes, some of it self-inflicted) and sadness are over. Presumably he is at peace. I will miss him, and so will Charles, Geoff, Trish and others. When the small ripples left by his relatively short life have gone, I hope I will still remember.

Carl Andrew Smith died on Monday morning and was remembered at his funeral on Friday. Robin Guy has recently retired after 50 years' involvement in the mental health sector.

- Herald on Sunday

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