In 2015, Kelly Ross’ husband ended his own life. She says the mental health system let him down – and it is now letting down her teenage son, who is struggling to access support in North Otago. Oamaru Mail editor Rebecca Ryan reports.
It has been four years since Wayne Ross died, but his wife is still concerned about the level of mental health support available in the Waitaki district.
Kelly Ross said her husband struggled to access the mental health services he needed in Oamaru, despite referrals from his GP, and on June 13, 2015, he took his own life.
He was 46 years old.
The system, Mrs Ross says, let her husband down – and she believes it is now letting her teenage son down, too.
“They just don’t have the resources to help – and I feel like it’s kids around my son’s age  who do fall through the cracks,” she said.
“The Southern DHB has a duty of care to look after us and they’re failing. They’ve failed our family twice.”
Mr Ross’ death had a devastating effect on those he left behind: his wife of 13 years, their three children, now aged 17, 15 and 13, and his other family and friends.
“Ever since I’d met him he’d been on anti-depressants and been quite open about his depression to me, but probably not to his friends,” Mrs Ross said.
“The main comment from his friends when he died was ‘he always seemed so happy’.”
Mrs Ross and her children were lucky to be surrounded by “amazing” family and friends for support.
“The offers of food and wood and just the outpouring was amazing, I’ll never forget it – it was just so heart-warming and helped so much,” she said.
“But as you get further down the track and everyone gets back to that day-to-day living you’ve still got all of these problems going on and not really knowing what avenues to take – that’s when it starts to get hard.”
Mrs Ross was offered counselling after her husband’s death, but she knew the counsellor and was not comfortable taking up the offer.
In a sense, she said there was an expectation that you would just “get on with it”.
“You get all these emotions going through your head and I’ve got the kind of personality where I just … unless someone asks, I won’t talk about how I feel, or anything.
“And there was never anything offered to the kids; it’s like they sort of fell through the cracks a little bit and I wonder whether it was because the schools were supposed to deal with it. There was no real protocol.”
The small-town gossip had also been difficult to deal with, she said.
“That’s why I’ve tried to be open and honest to whoever has asked about what actually happened.
“I’ll always talk about depression and suicide to anyone – and the experience we’ve had.”
A two-day inquest into the circumstances that led to Mr Ross’ death, presided over by coroner Sue Johnson, of Christchurch, was held at the Oamaru District Court this week.
No evidence heard at the inquest over the two days can be reported on further by media.
“Reliving it all is kind of surreal in a way. You’re almost looking through a mirror into the past,” Mrs Ross said.
She has become a passionate advocate for change in the mental health system, locally and nationally.
“I’ve got three kids and I need to make sure it doesn’t happen again – that’s my main concern.
“At the end of the day, Wayne’s dead and that’s not going to change, but I need to do what I can to try to protect my [family].”
It was a constant battle – especially recently as she tried to get help for her teenage son.
In June, a referral from his school counsellor was declined by the Southern DHB, which cited unclear evidence that the issues he presented “amounted to a moderate to severe psychiatric disorder”.
“Currently, the impression we have garnered is of truancy and a disregard of others,” the Southern DHB letter reads.
Mrs Ross said she was shocked and disheartened by the Southern DHB’s response.
“Why can’t anyone turn up and say ‘I want to talk to someone’ and that service be available?
“You shouldn’t get assessed and told ‘no’.”
She likened mental health services to a bottom of the cliff scenario, where people could only access help when they reached breaking point.
New Zealand’s reporting guidelines were also very restrictive, she said.
“You can’t highlight the problem if you can’t tell the story.
“You just feel bound and is that why our suicide rates are so high, because we can’t talk about it?”
Since Mr Ross’ death, she has been regularly approached by others struggling to access mental health support services.
“A lot of them are kids,” she said.
“They’re sharing similar experiences, or the fear of talking about it because they don’t know how people will react.”
Perceptions were slowly changing, she said.
“You’ve got I AM HOPE and there are definitely more avenues coming into play, but I often wonder if people like Wayne do tend to fall through the cracks because they are still pretty stoic and just get on with it,” she said.
One of her biggest frustrations was that family’s input was not sought when adult patients were assessed by mental health.
“The day Wayne died he was assessed as not being a harm to himself.
“If they had’ve asked for my input, things might’ve been different.”
The Chief Coroner’s annual provisional suicide statistics show 668 people died by suicide in the 2017-18 year.
New Zealand’s suicide rate is at the highest level since the provisional statistics were first recorded in 2007-08.
In a written statement, the Southern DHB offered its condolences to the Ross family for their “tragic loss”.
Southern DHB mental health general manager Louise Travers said Waitaki mental health staff were “working extremely hard to meet local demand and are working to capacity”.
Demand for mental health services was increasing across the country – and Waitaki was no exception to this, she said.
Where to get help
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
Depression Helpline, phone 0800 111 757 to talk to a trained counsellor
Healthline, phone 0800 611 116, if you feel unwell or sick, or need advice
Samaritans, phone 0800 726 666, if you need confidential emotional support 24/7
Youthline, phone 0800 376 633, free text 234, or email email@example.com
What’s Up, phone 0800 942 8787, for 5 to 18-year-olds. Monday to Friday, noon to 11pm, weekends 3pm to 11pm. Online chat 5pm to 10pm, seven days, at www.whatsup.co.nz
OUTLine NZ, phone 0800 688 5463 (0800 OUTLINE), support for sexuality or gender-identity issues. Helpline available 6pm to 9pm daily.
Lifeline, phone 0800 543 354, or text HELP to 4357.