Gossip, ridicule and a lack of urgency: Why the mum of self-harming 16yo says New Zealand's mental health system failed her

A teenage girl struggling to be heard has felt judged by doctors while struggling with mental health issues. Her mother tells Newshub this has made her recovery harder.
A teenage girl struggling to be heard has felt judged by doctors while struggling with mental health issues. Her mother tells Newshub this has made her recovery harder. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Warning: This story discusses suicide 

A 16-year-old girl fighting an impulse to self-harm has been made to feel worthless and judged by doctors during her experiences with some of the mental health support available in New Zealand. 

Now her mother Maia*, with the support of her daughter Danika*, is opening up about the struggle suicide attempts taken seriously while exhausting every option to save her life. 

She says Danika's difficulties have been worsened by the reactions of some of the doctors and nurses who treat her in the emergency department at Waikato Hospital.  

"She begs for help. She doesn't want to hurt herself, but she does it because she feels worthless and to be told 'you shouldn't even be in here', 'this isn't a place for kids' - well, where else is there to go? When you need help and you can't keep yourself safe and secure, what do you do?" Maia told Newshub. 

"The things that Danika's experiences in there have been totally unnecessary and it could have been prevented with a little care and understanding, or just not having an opinion near her.

"She's just a 16-year-old kid who yes, she's got mental health issues, and yes, she self-harms and struggles - but we're all entitled to care. The more things that go wrong for her when she pleads for help, is actually making her shut down."  

A Waikato DHB spokesperson said they are unable to disclose specific patient information to the media due to privacy obligations. 

Maia says Waikato Hospital staff have "ridiculed" Danika with throwaway comments like 'what's your problem?' and 'you do stuff to yourself to get in here'. 

Danika tells her mum she's been made to feel "worthless" when she presents with self-harm injuries and is accused of attention-seeking. 

"If she had been given adequate care and respect, she wouldn't have done half the stuff she has."  

Maia says one night at Waikato Hospital her daughter heard a doctor and a nurse at another time "talking crap" about her.  

"She basically turned around and said to them 'you do realise I can hear everything you're saying?' and they just looked at her. She said 'how do you think that makes me feel hearing you talk shit about me?'"

As a result, Danika absconded from the hospital that night and emergency services had to rescue her from the top of a tall building. 

For the five past years, Maia has been doing everything she can to be there for her child. She's lost count of the days she hasn't been able to work to support her. 

She says problems have only got harder since her brother died and Danika struggled with the loss of her uncle. Two years later, her sister-in-law, Danika's aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer that spread to her spine and she died in September 2017.

Just months later Maia's husband, Danika's father, was diagnosed with cancer and died in July 2018. 

"These things became traumas that she couldn't manage and one thing led to another," Maia explained.

When Danika's response to overwhelming situations started including striking out at others, Maia made the tough decision to put her daughter in the care of Oranga Tamariki in a bid to keep her safe while juggling the responsibility of two other children. 

"I had nowhere else to go to. I had to sign her over. Because I have to work and maintain an income, because I am the only person earning, I can't drop and be there because there's no financial assistance for me. I am not entitled to a cent to let me take time off work for me to actually go and be there. 

"I work for an awesome company and it's been tough for them, they support me but can't pay me when I'm not there - so any leave that I have to have for her, I take no money."

For Danika to have the best chance at getting around-the-clock support, she is currently looked after by nursing staff employed by Senate, which contracts to Oranga Tamariki. 

"I know my child has had some good support since being under Oranga Tamariki - they are working really hard, I will never say they haven't made an effort but it's not enough. 

"These people are crying out for help and they are not getting it."

In the moments between Danika saying she wants to die and actually attempting to take her own life, the mental health system doesn't have enough options to keep her safe from hurting herself, Maia says. 

Because Danika has been to Waikato Hospital after a number of self-harm incidents, there is a special protocol in place whenever she needs to be seen by a doctor there. 

The hospital is notified before she gets there by her Oranga Tamariki carers, she arrives at the emergency department (ED) doors and she has to wait in the vehicle at the drop-off zone for a staff member to come out and see her. 

"She's not allowed in ED because she's a high-risk and she's a flight-risk and they don't like her attitude because she's a repeat visitor." 

One night, Danika and her mum waited in the car for a few hours, but no one ever came out. As they sat there, Danika's anxiety heightened so they left.  

Later that night, she wound up back in the Emergency Department after making a serious attempt at taking her life.

While semi-conscious and drowsy, she slowly started waking to realise she had been handcuffed to the bed by the police. 

She says this made her feel like "an animal" and added another trauma to her struggles. 

Maia says Danika is often misunderstood and treated as though her mental health issues don't matter.
Maia says Danika is often misunderstood and treated as though her mental health issues don't matter.

Waikato DHB told Newshub it does not own or use handcuffs in the care of any patients, but they are used at critical moments by police. 

"At times people are brought to the emergency department in police custody for assessment and handcuffs may be used by police to prevent an individual from harming themselves or others."

In a statement, a police spokesperson explained on rare occasions handcuffs may be used if it is deemed appropriate, such as when there are concerns for someone’s safety and wellbeing or to prevent harm. 

"On this occasion, police officers took appropriate action to ensure the safety of a person during a mental health incident. These actions were guided by mental health professionals and support workers for the person involved," a spokesperson said. 

Although left mortified, Maia understands that sometimes extreme measures must be taken to protect her child. 

When Maia instinctively feels something isn't right with her daughter, it's usually true. 

A few weeks ago, seemingly out of nowhere, Maia grew more and more certain Danika's wellbeing was at risk. The mum-of-three got in her car and drove to where her daughter was staying.

She pulled up to the house to find two cop cars, four police officers, and two Oranga Tamariki staff. 

Danika had made another attempt to take her life but thankfully was caught before it was too late.

An ambulance was supposed to be on its way to look at Danika's injuries, but after waiting two-and-a-half hours, help never came despite saying she still wanted to hurt herself. 

When an Oranga Tamariki staffer called the Mental Health Crisis Team, who direct the treatment plan for Danika, to follow up, Maia says they responded that they thought she'd be alright because she wasn't 'escalated'.

Maia says her daughter heard that and made a run for it. 

"If it wasn't for me being there to physically restrain her, she would have done it that night," Maia says.  

"They want you to be actively attempting before they will even bother to speak to you." 

Maia says during one time that Danika tried to hurt herself, she needed to be resuscitated and ended up at Henry Bennett - a mental health facility for adults where she can be monitored 24/7. 

This can stress Danika out even more because she sees other people unwell with complex issues. 

"A 16-year-old kid being put in an adult facility because there's nothing around for our young ones,” Maia. 

They saved her life, but no one thought to notify Maia. 

The pressure of Danika's struggles takes a toll on Maia, but mostly she cries in anger and frustration for what she sees her daughter go through.

She believes her youngest child is desperate to get better. If anything, Danika actually wants to use her own experiences and struggles to help other people with their own mental health journeys.  

This week Danika transitioned back to the family home. Maia's eldest daughter, Danika's sister, has become a new mum and Danika is an "amazing aunty" helping to care for the baby as they live together under one roof. 

Maia says she's going to fighting for her daughter who she says has an amazing, loving, big-hearted and beautiful soul and so much to offer the world. 

"She's a natural at anything she puts her mind and heart into and even in her darkest space she can always be thinking of how to support others in need and try to offer words of encouragement to keep them going.'

"If I back off and stop pushing she will succeed because she acts on impulse. She actually just wants to be heard and to be supported and to be cared for and loved, and I'm going to do that."  

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the teenager. 

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