Mental health care must be better, says father at autopsy

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This story discusses details of suicide.

The father of a 21-year-old patient in the psychiatric ward at Palmerston North Hospital who died in a suspected suicide has launched an inquest into her death with an emotional plea for change.

A photo of Erica Hume sits in the courtroom next to her mother Carey (left) and father Owen (right).
Photo: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

University student Erica Hume died on May 16, 2014, nine days after sustaining injuries from which she did not recover while on the ward.

In Palmerston North District Court on Monday morning, her father, Owen Hume, said mental health needs to be improved.

“The questions that will be asked during this study may take many people out of their comfort zone, but if we want to make real transformational change, that’s what needs to be done.

“So let’s go ahead and do what we’re here for,” he said.

“When Erica entered 21 on the 6th ward… [of May]Erica didn’t want to die. She wanted to live, and she asked for help.”

Owen Hume read out a statement about his daughter – “a daughter any father would be proud of. Still”. He and his wife Carey posted a photo of Erica in the courtroom next to where they were sitting.

Owen Hume said Erica’s mental health problems started when she was in her penultimate year of high school in Bay of Plenty.

She received guidance from the school counselor and was taken to a doctor, where she was prescribed antipsychotics.

Owen and Carey Hume were told nothing about what was going on for over a year, until they suddenly received a call from the counselor who said they were trying to admit Erica to the mental health ward in Tauranga.

The Bay of Plenty District Health Board’s file stated that Erica’s problems may be related to her prescribed medication and that her counselor should no longer have contact.

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Erica Hume was admitted to the mental health ward after going to the hospital when she overdosed and tried to harm herself.

She recovered and continued her plan to move to Palmerston North to attend Massey University.

“Although we were anxious, we had a plan with Erica,” said Owen Hume.

“The Bay of Plenty mental health had referred Erica to MidCentral mental health. And we were assured that she would be taken care of. We fully expected Erica to be hired.”

MidCentral’s mental health department didn’t mind her enough to get started as a patient, but that changed during her freshman year of college after several self-injuries.

Owen Hume at the inquest of his daughter Erica Hume, who died in a suspected suicide while a patient in the mental health ward at Palmerston North Hospital.

Owen Hume says mental health needs transformational change.
Photo: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

Even then, Owen Hume said, Erica’s mental health care was not well managed and for some reason her pleas for help were not believed.

“I assume she wasn’t on illegal drugs, wasn’t an alcoholic, was young, beautiful, went to college, functioned, so it couldn’t be that bad…

“It wasn’t recognized that it took all her energy to be that functioning person, to tackle a new day.”

After Erica’s death, her parents pushed for a mental health review at MidCentral. Among the other findings was that the Palmerston North Hospital ward was not fit for purpose. Construction on a new one is due to begin later this year.

Owen Hume said he believed there were flaws with the MidCentral mental health system and Department 21, including poor policies and procedures; a bad culture in mental health care; the ward itself was dangerous for patients; overworked and unsupported staff; and a DHB more interested in harm reduction than in finding the truth.

Coroner Matthew Bates apologized to Erica Hume's family over delays in the investigation.  Erica Hume died in a suspected suicide when she was a patient in the psychiatric ward at Palmerston North Hospital.

Coroner Matthew Bates apologized to Erica Hume’s family over delays in the investigation.
Photo: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

Coroner Matthew Bates read an agreed summary of facts stating that the day before she suffered fatal injuries in the ward, Erica Hume had a scheduled appointment with a nurse, whose name has been suppressed.

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She told the nurse that her mood was low and that she had thoughts of harming and killing herself.

“Erica reported two triggers for her feelings: a self-injury DVD from her college psychology class and the recent death of a friend.”

Erica did not name the friend, but it was later revealed that it was Shaun Gray, who died on April 16 in a suspected suicide in the mental health ward of Palmerston North Hospital.

An inquest into his death was held in May and June. Coroner Bates has reserved his decision.

After being examined by a psychiatrist, it was decided that Erica would be admitted to the mental health department.

Her risk assessment form at admission said she was at high risk for self-farming. At night she was checked by the staff every 30 minutes.

The staff couldn’t complete all of her admission papers and left it for the night shift, and no formal risk assessment was performed while Erica was on the ward.

There was a problem with her medication in the ward and on the evening of May 6, 2014 or the morning of May 7, she did not receive the prescribed doses.

On May 7, Erica spent part of the morning in the courtyard with other patients and had called community mental health services, asking them to bring her cell phone to the ward.

A nurse spoke to her as she walked into the dining room around 12:30 p.m., and she denied having any thoughts of suicide or harming herself.

Erica returned to her room around 12:39 PM. She was found unconscious 20 minutes later, before being transferred to the hospital’s intensive care unit, where she died nine days later.

There, her family found out about Gray’s death and the similarities. Carey Hume told staff that the ward had killed Erica.

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The coroner apologized to the Hume family for the length of time the investigation had taken.

“I have no doubt that the time it took to get to this point has added to the toll it has taken on the family.”

Bates said he was the third coroner to hear the case, and it needed to be heard after Gray’s investigation.

There have been further deaths of ward patients since 2014, including a 19-year-old man who died in a suspected suicide late last year.

“There’s still work to be done. I don’t think anyone in this room would say otherwise,” Bates said.

The coroner has drawn up a 64-item list of issues the investigation will investigate, including Erica Hume’s admissions and transfer procedures, medication and employee relations, and training.

The investigation is expected to take three weeks.

Where to get help:

Need to talk? Call or text 1737 toll free at any time to speak with a trained counselor for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or toll free text 234 (8am-12pm), or email [email protected]

What’s Up: online chat (15:00-22:00) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12:00-22:00 weekdays, 15:00-23:00 weekends)

Asian Family Services: 0800 862 342 Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm or SMS 832 Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. Languages ​​spoken: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English.

National Support Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

OUTLine: 0800 688 5463 (18:00-21:00)

If it is an emergency and you think you or someone else is in danger, call 111.