No easy solutions to mental health challenges

  • 01/11/2018

OPINION: I have been doing a lot of thinking about the impact of mental health on the wider community, families, and those who contend with this issue on a daily basis.

We know there are no easy solutions and it doesn't matter how much money is thrown at the problem, we are manifestly unprepared with both the support mechanisms needed and the long term focus required. 

I also speak from a personal perspective.

It is almost 3 and a ½ years since my sister Amanda took her own life just before her 44th birthday. Mental illness and associated health problems are usually a complex issue with a number of stressors, triggers and impacts. 

For my sister it began at the age of 13 with bullying at school which was not dealt with well by the school, lowering her self-worth and self-esteem. 

By 18 she became morbidly obese. In her early 20s she developed a gambling addiction and my parents dealt with this by continually bailing her out. 

After her first self-harming event at 25, she was diagnosed as bi-polar and started a rest of life reliance on medication. By 30 she had stopped gambling (no money and no bailouts) but instead became an alcoholic.

So, what to do. After losing her job in her late 30s for regular absenteeism for hangovers, she got kicked out of the bedsit she was living in due to 6 months unpaid rent. 

At that point I spent a week with her (in Auckland where she lived) and she asked me to be her next of kin and help her get well. She had hit rock bottom, aged 40 and all her worldly possessions could be put into two suitcases. Our elderly parents simply didn't have the energy or resilience to help her. 

I got her into a secure unit to deal with her demons  including confused sexual orientation, lack of meaningful relationships with people, addictions and of course her diagnosed mental health condition which had psychotic manifestations added in. Six months of pre work, six months of lock down with no contact with the outside world. This was the biggest commitment of her life.

I was so proud of her, she spent two years working through so much for any one person to deal with, but then that wasn't enough. Just when it looked like she had become the most well she had ever been, comfortable and proud of being a lesbian, alcohol free (mostly) for two years, having a better relationship with our parents; she unexpectedly took her life one night. 

Why then? 

Having spent a long time with her through the process, we still didn't see it coming, so how are we supposed to support members of our community we don't know as well as family?

Back to my first sentence, I have been thinking about the Jami-Lee Ross situation.

As a society I think we often aren't focusing on the right things. If we can do anything it is to notice behaviour change to people within our circle.

Terry Copeland is the CEO of Federated Farmers New Zealand

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