Ashley Peacock has been locked in seclusion in this country’s mental health system for more than 5 years, and I am deeply saddened that the Minister who has the ability to get him out has declined to do so. I asked the Minister yesterday to step in, under Section 32 of the Public Health and Disability Act 2000, to help Ashley after all other avenues have been exhausted by his family.
The junior Minister, Peseta Sam Lotu-Ilga, fresh from his recent spate of calamitous crisis management around Serco’s private prison fight clubs, seemed more than happy to play human shield for Health Minister Coleman and defend the use of seclusion in Ashley’s case, finding ample time along the way to irresponsibly paint the intellectually disabled 37-year-old as a danger to society while downplaying his considerable regulatory ability to improve Ashley’s situation with little more than a letter and a phone call. It was like watching the old PR mantra in action: ‘neither confirm nor deny and never explain’.
This week, the NZHerald has had a stinging series about the use of seclusion, with a particular focus on Ashley and his family’s efforts to do all that they can to get Ashley the help that he needs. Yesterday, the Human Rights Commission announced a United Nations funded review into seclusion and restraint practices in New Zealand.
What the Associate Minister reminded me today is that the National Government isn’t won over by real stories of real people unjustly suffering on their Government’s watch. It has become a habit of theirs to muddy the inconvenient truths and fudge the details, regardless of how it affects people’s lives – even the most vulnerable in our society. Ashley’s case is complicated, sure – it’d be strange if it wasn’t after so many years being shuffled between units, hospitals and health board jurisdictions around the country – but when the Human Rights Commission, the United Nations, the Ombudsman and the National Intellectual Disability Care Agency have all pointed to New Zealand’s continued use of seclusion as a major human rights issue, the situation starts to get a little clearer. It starts to look like a number of DHBs are struggling to deal with the increasing demand for mental health services and are using seclusion as a management tool rather than as a brief, last-minute therapeutic intervention when all else has failed. Ashley is a casualty of that mismanagement, and sadly, he is actually one of the lucky ones to have some kind of plan in place for his reintegration into the community.
I’m a big believer in politicians not intervening in individual cases, and not advocating specific treatments – we don’t have the same information available to us that clinicians do, and most of us are not doctors. But this is not what I’m doing here. Those of us advocating for Ashley’s removal from seclusion simply want the pathway outlined by four expert reviewers to the National Intellectual Disability Agency to be adopted, and adopted sooner rather than later. When you have an intellectually disabled man with complex needs living for so long in a situation that can only be described as imprisonment – a situation that those expert reviewers have concluded is actively exacerbating his symptoms and intensifying his mental illness – you need to act quickly, and to show leadership.
As Minister Coleman himself said in his speech for this year’s launch of the NZ Health Strategy: “we also know we can better understand people with complex needs and build services around them, rather than dictate what they will receive.” These words seem strangely prescient now. It has only been seven weeks since that statement was made amid all of the back-patting of the Budget – did he mean it at all?