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Coroner Wants Review Of Mental Health Privacy

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Wellington, Aug 12 NZPA - The Wellington coroner Ian Smith has called for a review of the Privacy Act so health professionals can more easily talk to the families of people suffering mental health difficulties, following the self-inflicted death of a young university student two years ago.

The call comes as chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean calls for more openness on reporting of suicides, which claim 50 percent more lives than road deaths each year.

Mr Smith released his finding today into the death of Sophie Coady, 20, who took her own life after a night out on the town in Wellington on St Patrick's Day in 2008.

Originally from Christchurch, she was attending Massey University and in 2007 went to an after-hours medical centre and sought treatment for depression as she was having suicidal thoughts.

She then started seeing a doctor and a psychologist at Massey's Student Health Services and was taking anti-depressant medication.

She stopped taking the medication by the end of 2007 but restarted in February 2008 when she saw her doctor, but at the time denied any suicidal thoughts.

Miss Coady's family believed that had they known she was coming off her medication they would have resisted it, and if they had known of her suicidal thoughts they would have tried to help her more.

The student health doctor said she did not have access to the psychologist's counselling notes and Miss Coady was not mentioned in staff meetings with the counsellor, while the counsellor believed she was a low risk of suicide and was getting better through 2007.

The night she took her life it was likely to be an impulsive act, the counsellor said.

Mr Smith, who has sent his report to the Privacy Commissioner, Director of Mental Health, the Health and Disability Commissioner and the Law Commission, said health professionals faced a difficult situation with privacy and confidentiality, particularly in the area of mental health.

He believed the provisions of the Privacy Act dealing with mental health issues should be reviewed.

"There is a wealth of information that next-of-kin or caregivers should be consulted as part of the holistic approach to care for a mental health whanau/family member and that this is the one area where a wide consultation should not be precluded as to reasons of privacy."

Each situation needed to be dealt with on a case by case basis and the patient should be consulted first about information being passed on, he said.

If consent was refused then a health professional should be able to consult a family member under specific guidelines.

Mr Smith said there was a surprising lack of disclosure between the student health service's GP and the counsellor.

There was no barrier to sharing information about the patient in these circumstances, and it was no different to a GP referring a patient to an expert, he said.

He recommended the student health service review its protocol to ensure there was a "robust inter-sharing of information with respect to a client's welfare".

Massey University communications director James Gardiner said the university would take the coroner's recommendations seriously.

"Obviously pastoral care is something we take very seriously. We are dealing with large numbers of young people living away from home for the first time.

"We do our utmost to ensure their health and wellbeing. Unfortunately there are going to be tragedies with large numbers of people."

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