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Last night's 7:30 Report (ABC), interviews family carers

In the lead up to the National Mental Health Commission's report, released later this year, the 7.30 Report interviewed two family carers of people with a mental illness.

To access the video clip go to:


Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Broadcast: 04/09/2012

Reporter: Guy Stayner

With the Mental Health Commission's first report due before the end of the year, families are calling for change and for mistakes to be learnt from.


LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: In three months the National Mental Health Commission will hand down its first report into the problems with the way authorities deal with the mentally ill. Two Melbourne families understand the flaws in the system better than anyone. In both cases, their relatives were released from care without anybody being notified and the consequences were devastating. Guy Stayner reports.

DENISE SANGSTER-GREENWOOD, JESSE'S MOTHER: He was intelligent, he had a wonderful sense of humour and, when he was well, he was everybody's best friend.

GUY STAYNER, REPORTER: Jesse Sangster is lovingly remembered as a man who enjoyed fishing and playing sport. But he also had his demons. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 16.

DENISE SANGSTER-GREENWOOD: Toward the end of his life he was a very intense and sometimes very scary to be around. Often times he changed personalities.

GUY STAYNER: In January 2010 Jesse Sangster was admitted as an involuntary patient at this hospital in Melbourne's east, after being involved in a six hour stand-off with police.

DENISE SANGSTER-GREENWOOD: That was when I was told by Jesse's treating psychiatrist that it was time for me to go and get some respite, Jesse would be held in hospital for six weeks, at least, and then he would be placed in residential care.

GUY STAYNER: Content her son was being looked after, Denise Sangster-Greenwood went to visit her daughter in Queensland, but instead of being in hospital for six weeks Jesse Sangster was in hospital for just six days.

(To Denise Sangster-Greenwood) Are you surprised that Jesse was released?


GUY STAYNER: No one told Jesse Sangster's mother and carer that he was being discharged. She had rented the house next door just to keep her son close and safe. Now she was 2,000 kilometres away, and Jesse was on his own.

DENISE SANGSTER-GREENWOOD: The case worker knew how unwell he was and wanted him hospitalised immediately, but she couldn't get through to the hospital or the psychiatrists.

GUY STAYNER: Jesse Sangster self-harmed and called 000.

DENISE SANGSTER-GREENWOOD: The six police officers and two paramedics decided that Jesse wasn't actually mentally unwell, that he was drunk, so they left, and they left him, and an hour later he hopped in his car and he died just around the corner.

GUY STAYNER: His car ran off the road in the foothills of the Dandenong ranges. He was speeding and had a blood alcohol reading of 0.13. Jesse Sangster was 28.

DENISE SANGSTER-GREENWOOD: I kept him alive for 12 years. I listened to them and I believed them when they said, "Go and have some respite".

GUY STAYNER: The Sangsters aren't the only ones who have been kept in the dark with tragic consequences. Mary MacQueen's son Simon had an ongoing battle with mental illness, hearing voices throughout his adult life.

MARY MACQUEEN, SIMON'S MOTHER: When he finally went to hospital we went into his unit and it was horrendous. He'd obviously tried to hang himself; there was no food, it was putrid, he was putrid when I took him to hospital.

GUY STAYNER: On the 28th of November 2008, Simon MacQueen was discharged. No one told his family. His funeral was Christmas Eve.

MARY MACQUEEN: All families who have lived with someone with a mental health condition know their child or whoever the family member is, far better than anyone else. They know when they're ill and they know when they're suffering.

GUY STAYNER: In an inquest into Jesse Sangster's death, the coroner recommended changes to Victoria's Mental Health Act to ensure families and carers are notified when involuntary patients are discharged. But that recommendation isn't new. An almost identical recommendation was made in NSW nearly a decade ago.

(To Denise Sangster-Greenwood) If that recommendation had been incorporated in Victoria, would Jesse still be alive today?

DENISE SANGSTER-GREENWOOD: If Victoria had followed NSW, Jesse wouldn't have died.

PAT MCGORRY, ORYGEN YOUTH HEALTH: I think with coronial inquiries, the same mistakes are being captured and reported time after time, and no action is taken by state governments to address the failings of a very poorly resourced system.

GUY STAYNER: About 20 per cent of all coronial inquests deal with mental health patients, and the findings are often disturbingly similar, case after case.

ROB KNOWLES, MENTAL HEALTH COUNCIL: It's not difficult to implement them in theory. Getting them implemented at a practice level is sometimes quite challenging.

GUY STAYNER: Rob Knowles is a former Victorian health minister and a member of the new National Mental Health Commission designed to monitor and assess the system, and provide policy advice to the Federal Government. He says notifying families of patient discharge is included in the national mental health standards, but the standards aren't mandatory.

ROB KNOWLES: I can understand the frustration, but I think what it does highlight is that having established a framework doesn't always mean that it's reflected in the practice on the ground, and that's where I think we do need to try and find better ways of holding to account service delivery meeting the standards or the policy or the legal frameworks which are set out in the way in which they're meant to operate.

GUY STAYNER: The National Mental Health Commission hands down its first report card on the system later this year. Coroners and thousands of families across the country will be watching with interest.

DENISE SANGSTER-GREENWOOD: Changes have to be made so young people stop dying.

LEIGH SALES. Guy Stayner reporting. And if you need help dealing with depression or mental illness you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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