'He didn't take his life, mental health did': Why an 'inadequate' system couldn't help father-of-three

He appeared to be a regular, happy Kiwi bloke but after an eight-year battle with mental health issues, "super active" father-of-three Sydney Harris died by suicide in October. This three-part series looks at his life, the mental health system and what can be learned from his death.

This is the second part of the series. Read part one and part three

Picture frames fitted with smiling kids, a loving couple growing older together and moments captured in happy times fill the walls of the Harris family's Oratia home.

Those images are now memories they will cherish as they grieve the loss of the man of the house, father-of-three Sydney.

In October, the 53-year-old lost a battle with mental health issues, rooted in issues from his childhood. He struggled to shake the tough experiences from his past and, for the eight years leading up to his death, fought to externally manage the battles inside his mind.

His wife Lynda believes he didn't take his life, but mental health did.

The family worked closely with doctors and mental health advisors as well as the crisis team throughout Syd's seven or so attempts at self-harm.

The family left behind. Georgia (far right) pictured with her two siblings and mum Lynda (middle left).
The family left behind. Georgia (far right) pictured with her two siblings and mum Lynda (middle left). Photo credit: Supplied / Harris family.

His daughter Georgia, 23, told Newshub that at times they felt supported by mental health workers, but had to fight to prove the seriousness of his state.

"It 'let go' too easily, and took too long to be 'picked up'," she said. 

As kids, Georgia and her two siblings saw their mum "constantly fighting" for Syd to be okay and for others outside of their circle to understand that the person they were looking at had significantly morphed from his former self.

She saw her mum jumping through "many, many hoops" to have her dad be made a priority when he was struggling.

"The process to have someone admitted to hospital when they are unwell often involves many hurdles," she said. 

"You need to be 'suicidal' to be given that sort of treatment with mental health, so we wait for the extreme rather than do anything to prevent. 

"We tend to let people fall off the cliff first before bringing in the ambulance. We need to start building safety barriers."

Although it was her father who was sick, Georgia feels they were failed as a family as they were the ones behind him, trying to support Syd - which took a toll on their own mental health.

Georgia often thinks if they had been offered more resources, they could have helped him more and listened better in the early stages of his illness.

"It was really hard because I think mental health workers can have an idea of what that person is like - but they're not home with us, and they're not there when he wakes up in the morning and when he has an episode of depression, or going through something really hard that day," Georgia said.

"To portray that in a way that mental health will understand was quite difficult, because there were often times where the crisis team would come over and he was quite bad and sick, and they would say 'He's okay today' [or] 'He's looking fine'.

"And nothing else carried on from that, which was really difficult for us because inside it was like, 'He's not well, he needs as much help as he can get'."

Lynda (left) and Georgia (right) shared with Newshub how they found the mental health system while Sydney was sick. Watch the video above for the full story.
Lynda (left) and Georgia (right) shared with Newshub how they found the mental health system while Sydney was sick. Watch the video above for the full story. Photo credit: Supplied / Harris family.

As a teenager, Georgia felt isolated not understanding or being able to see what was wrong with her dad or being able to explain what was going on at home to her friends.

Her mum Lynda knows too well mental illness is not a disease that can be diagnosed simply. Syd didn't want his children to know he was battling while the couple, who got married in 1995, worked to establish what was wrong.

"There's absolutely no picture you can take of someone's thoughts - and that's the biggest key to mental health, I believe, is what someone's thinking.

"What they say can give you an understanding of what's going on for them, but Syd was very careful what he said.

"When the crisis team were over, he was very good at presenting as 'well Syd', and so they would say to me 'actually we see nothing here, there's no reason for us to be involved at this time' or 'we'll just do some phone check-ins' and they used to leave, and then I'd see the Syd that I'd been seeing for days and that's what makes it really hard."

She believes the workers are on limited time with a big caseload.                    

"There's so few of them to be spread across so many people with mental health or presenting with mental health that I don't necessarily think it's their fault - I think it's the resources that they have to be able to be in the know.

"I think that mental health they are there for you always, like you can call and get the crisis team, but for the family unless you are the person who's going to be the champion for that person and keep talking and keep pushing and pushing and pushing then actually they won't be picked up or they won't be supported because they're not going to say it themselves.

"You often see those Facebook posts 'If you see my heart, I've got the jug on for you' and 'Call and I'll always be here for a cup of coffee'.

"What a load of... no one's going to do that who is suffering with mental health issues."

The family are grieving the loss of Syd and hope his story can help others.
The family are grieving the loss of Syd and hope his story can help others. Photo credit: Supplied / Harris family.

On Tuesday, a Government report painted a disturbing image of mental health in New Zealand, labelling the Mental Health Act "outdated and inadequate".

"The inquiry heard many stories of people who did not get the help they needed and deserved. We must listen to these voices of people with lived experience," Health Minister Dr David Clark said.

"It is clear we need to do more to support people as they deal with these issues - and do a lot more to intervene earlier and support wellbeing in our communities."

Jazz Thornton, a mental health advocate who attempted suicide 14 times, was admitted into a psych ward only twice because no beds were available.

She believes the issue is that there is no help, and in response started Voices of Hope, an organisation committed to helping others who are struggling.

She says the Harris family's experience is unfortunately one "of many Kiwis".

"The current state of our system says that unless you have tried to take your life, or you are wealthy and can afford private care then there is nothing available for you," she told Newshub.

"Even then, if you have tried to take your life you, at times, are seen for all of 20 minutes and sent home." 

Syd's family feel like he was let down by the lack of help available, and now just fondly look back on good times with him.

Georgia is now passionately trying to spur change within the current state of mental health system, advocating for more access to assistance, openness about expressing challenges and acceptance of people who are fighting their own battles. 

Her mum is calling for more funding around preventative care and preventative opportunities, like discussions about mental health in schools.

"If we can get mental health right in families for parents or for children, and we can wrap around services to support that, then that's going to change the future of New Zealand."

Newshub.

Where to find help and support:

Contact Newshub with your story tips:
news@newshub.co.nz