Opinion: Steve Anderson deserves a second chance

  • Breaking
  • 17/12/2014

It was one of the worst mass shootings New Zealand has ever seen, right up there with the Bain and Aramoana killings. It's a tragedy in every sense of the word. How do you recover after having a family member shot dead during a holiday weekend at a ski lodge?

Having spoken with relatives of those who were killed, I know it's something they'll never get over and, in many cases, they will not be able to forgive. Who could?

Steve Anderson was demonstrably unwell, had ready access to a firearm, and a coroner's report would later point to serious shortcomings in his care by his mental health team. Patient notes were not shared by experts and there was a significant failure in how he was managed after his first admission to hospital in 1995. There was a two-month gap in his treatment by the mental health team between July and September 1996. A coroner has described this as "inexcusable".

Anderson told me he wakes up to what he did every day. Both Anderson and his mother have to live with the knowledge of what happened as well. They will never forget and, in my mind, they are victims too. Although it's hard, this must be remembered.

Of course he now knows that those at the lodge that day were "ordinary, good Kiwi citizens". But his mind didn't see them that way back in 1997. He was deluded; he truly believed he had to take the action that had horrific consequences.

Just like thousands of Kiwis, Anderson suffers from schizophrenia. The illness affects people in different ways. Schizophrenia has a slew of negative connotations. Many think people who have it are violent. This is a misconception. Images of the aggressive, sadistic schizophrenic are plentiful in the media. Such stereotypes only further the stigma and crush any likelihood of sympathy for individuals.

When I interviewed Anderson last week, it was clear he still struggles. It's challenging enough for those trying to accept and deal with this illness; they also have to deal with the disgust, confusion and fear of others.

He is of course not the same as he was 18 years ago. The difference now is he recognises his illness and says he has the ability to control it. If bad stuff starts happening, it's "more just like water off a duck's back" he told me. The medication he takes helps stabilise his mood and lessens the impact of what he calls "the trauma" that he sometimes perceives coming at him.

Tragically Anderson had become so withdrawn and deluded by the time the family reached Raurimu in 1997, he believed his decision to kill was the right one to "save the world". It wasn't just a lingering thought; he says he was totally convinced.

Should he have ever gone to Raurimu in the first place? No. He should have been in hospital getting treatment. Although some still do, you can't blame his parents for what happened. No one knew exactly what he was thinking on that day. They made a decision to bring him based on their fear that he might harm himself if left at home. They thought coming with the family for the long weekend was the best option for Anderson's wellbeing.

I do believe Anderson is truly remorseful for what happened. The images and events are still with him. He can't believe he got to that stage and got that "crazy", and the problem for him is that I suspect most New Zealanders can't either. Because of this, it's always going to be a hostile world for Anderson. He'll always struggle to be accepted.

I do think as New Zealanders we have a long way to go in terms of understanding and accepting people who suffer from mental health problems. For Anderson to be successfully rehabilitated, he needs to be allowed into the community. The forensic mental health service says this is a crucial part of his recovery.

The service also talks about so-called "checks and balances". This relates in part to a graduated, monitored leave programme. Anderson is not simply just released and left to his own devices. He's currently allowed out of hospital for two days a week, in eight-hour slots, but not any longer.

The clinical director of central regional forensic mental health, Nigel Fairley, has told me Anderson will likely get what's called "overnight leave" within the next six months. This means the service and those who care for Anderson have confidence in his mental state, his attitude to his treatment and his desire to get well.

Some will always say lock him up and throw away the key. Others would say this is an ignorant, uncompassionate point of view. I tend to agree with the latter group. What purpose would it serve to leave someone to languish in the mental health system? Apart from costing tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, people like Anderson do have the ability to recover and contribute to society in a meaningful way. Branding him as the "Raurimu mass killer" for the rest of his life serves no purpose.

The problem for Anderson is that he did the unthinkable. He shot not one, but 10 people. Families of those who survived and those who were injured will struggle every day because of what he did 18 years ago. They won't and can't forgive, and many, if not most, Kiwis I suspect feel the same. That's understandable.

But we must remember Anderson was psychotic when he did this; he'd lost touch with reality and was found not guilty by a court on account of his insanity. His condition and treatment will probably last for the rest of his life. But I don't think this means he shouldn't be allowed another chance. 

source: newshub archive