Sacked for taking happy pills

By Catherine Woulfe

Two women have been fired by a government-funded trust for taking prescribed antidepressants.

One has complained to the Human Rights Commission, and another is considering the Employment Court, after her claim to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) was quashed last week.

Higher Ground Drug Rehabilitation Trust runs a drug and alcohol residential recovery programme from Te Atatu, West Auckland, and states in its code of ethics that staff who have previously had problems with drugs or alcohol "will remain abstinent of mood and mind-altering drugs".

That policy had been a cornerstone of its programme since 1983 and had been reviewed in 1998, the ERA decision said.

One of the women, a contractor, laid a complaint with the Human Rights Commission in February last year after she was sacked in 2005.

Her complaint "referred to the termination of a contract with the trust because the employer learned the complainant was taking anti-depressants", said spokesman Gilbert Wong.

Wong said mediation was now under way after being put on hold in September to await the outcome of the ERA case involving the other woman, Ida Murrie.

Murrie last week lost her ERA claim for unjustified disadvantage, discrimination on the grounds of disability, and unjustified dismissal.

Janet Scott, member of the ERA, said in her decision that in the past Murrie had had an alcohol and drug dependency problem, and in 1994, she completed a four-month residential recovery programme with the trust. Murrie volunteered at the trust after that treatment, and she started paid work in 1996, as a shopper. In 2003 she became a counsellor.

She was fired in December 2005, five months after a colleague told her boss she was taking the anti-depressant citalopram.

In 2002, Murrie had talked to programme director Stuart Anderson about the drug.

He told the ERA that he then had told her she would have to use a herbal remedy, St John's Wort, instead.

Murrie said she had tried St John's Wort, but it had given her a headache, and she had started using citalopram, which her doctor had prescribed in June 2002.

"She said it never occurred to her that Higher Ground would not allow her to take this medication, and she took it for approximately 12 months," Scott's decision said.

She was fired after a series of letters and meetings - at which she chose not to have her say over the "issue of compliance" - and Scott said the trust did all it could to help her comply with the policy.

Scott said in her decision that although there were "good medical reasons for taking such medication", Murrie was well aware of the policy and knew that taking the drugs constituted serious misconduct.

"Ms Murrie was not dismissed because she was suffering from a psychological disability but because she was in breach of her contract and refused to take part in the disciplinary proceedings."

Murrie told the Herald on Sunday the policy was "discriminatory", and she planned to appeal to the Employment Court.

Alex McDonald, Murrie's lawyer, confirmed that her client was considering her options but could not comment further at this stage.

Janet Colby, chairwoman of the board of trustees for the trust, told the ERA that the policy "provides a wonderful opportunity to use other methods of treating secondary mental health problems... Interventions used included psychotherapy, cognitive therapy, meditation, healthy eating and physical therapies".

Anderson declined to comment on the employment cases or on the trust's code of ethics.

He referred the Herald on Sunday to the trust's lawyer, Paul Tremewan, who did not return phone calls.

Anti-depressants

More than 6 per cent of New Zealanders take anti-depressants, according to Pharmac figures.

Simon England, spokesman for the government's drug-funding agency, said more than one million prescriptions were handed out in the year before June 2006. "So approximately 250,000 people are using these drugs."

Professor Doug Sellman, director of the National Addiction Centre, said about a third of people would be affected by a mental disorder that anti-depressants could be used to treat. Mostly, the drugs were prescribed for major depression, but other conditions included social phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder. "We don't give anti-depressants to all of those people but we definitely think about giving anti-depressants to virtually all of them."

Sellman said side effects of the drugs were nowhere near as bad as they used to be - if anything affected a person's work, it would be the depression itself, rather than the drugs.

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