Hard News by Russell Brown

Living together

I was hoping the Herald would change the headline on a story about the West Auckland stabbings that went up on its website yesterday afternoon - Stabbing latest in series of attacks by psychiatric patients - because it was frankly misleading. The most recent case cited in the story is from 2002, and the short list of incidents cited hardly qualifies as a "series of attacks".

Happily, the story has re-emerged under a more sustainable headline: Mental state of knife attacker had caused alarm. Which, indeed, it had. At 1.27am on Sunday, police visited the home of the attacker after a call from his landlady. She could not cite a specific threat, and the police did not perceive one, but arranged for a visit from two mental health workers later the day. Fearing that the man was becoming ill, they arranged for him to meet with his case worker the next day.

But before that could happen, he killed one man and injured two others, before running at police as they fired bullets into him. (Who else heard the reports on Tuesday and thought: "another P case"?)

Charlie Norcross, father of badly injured fishing shop owner Robert Norcross, has been vocal about the incident. He told the Herald:

"Some years ago we had hospitals in place to take care of these psychiatric weirdos and the Government in their wisdom have just decided they'd save some money and close them down and let them drift around in society. None of us are safe. You could go down the road shopping and anything could happen."

Today on Morning Report, he further declared that "we've got psychiatric people on the rampage … a large number of potential killers in our society" and put to Sean Plunket that "it's going on all the time Sean, isn't it?"

It's impossible to begrudge a man who has nearly lost a loved one such anguish, but no, it's not going on all the time. According to Mental Health Commissioner Ruth Harrison in the same segment on the programme, a survey has found that "the incidence of homicide by people who experience mental illness" has fallen from 20% to 6% since deinstitutionalisation.

It is not that this man had been abandoned by the system: he had been engaged with it, living in the community, for 13 years. It's just that, sadly, this happened very quickly and no one saw it coming. (A good friend of mine used to do emergency interventions in mental health. It's not a job I could do.)

This does, nonetheless, oblige us to think about the balance between risks and freedoms. And implicit in the recognition that it was simply wrong to incarcerate the mentally ill for most or all of their lives is the recognition that mentally ill people in the community - like any of us - present a risk that they would not were they locked up. And yet, it is likely that 50 years ago, we would have been urged to deliver up our own two, mildly autistic, children to a state institution.

This issue is more than theoretical round our way. A psychiatric survivor has moved in to a Housing New Zealand property over the road. His neighbour, who had just paid a pretty penny to move into the street and has a young daughter, is freaking out and keeping a notebook. There have been some incidents: blaring music, comatose bodies outside on the driveway one morning, a visitor overdosing on his meds.

The new tenant knocks on my door a couple of times a week, to borrow batteries or a pen, or use the phone (in one case, to call an ambulance). I know his name. He is always polite to the point of being apologetic when he comes, and he has the troubled look of the mentally ill. He seems a decent guy and I figure he has had a much harder life than me. The troublesome incidents seem to be trailing off, and, unlike the woman who lived in the other half of the duplex (and who was way too crazy to be living on her own) when we first moved into the street, he seems to have whanau support. I think he just doesn't yet know how to live in a house, or with neighbours, and I'd like to see someone come and put up some curtains for him, and encourage him to wash more.

I hope it works out for him. After all, things have quietened down down the road, where the schizophrenic who'd done a long jail lag was moved in a while back (although I'd have to say he's the one I'm still not happy about). But I really think we've had our turn: Housing NZ can send us a nice retired couple or some refugees next time, please.

PS: Got stuff to do today, so I'll leave it here, but look out tomorrow for readers' dispatches from the coffee frontlines …