Rosabel Tan reflects on the death of a friend, failed by the system.
This piece includes frank discussion of suicide. If you, or someone you know is struggling, help is available.
The day Finn went missing, I was at school. It was 2008, the beginning of the end of the summer holidays, and I was spending it in a windowless psychology lab in the university’s Human Sciences Building. My task that day was to check and file a tall stack of questionnaires. It was monotonous work, and when my friend Jonathan rang I was glad for the break. I assumed he was calling about my birthday, which was the following day, but the tenor of his voice and the news that it carried filled me with a slippery, unearthly sensation. “They don’t know where he is,” he said.
“What do you mean?” It was the kind of question that didn’t expect an answer. It sought repetition, as though the act of hearing the words again would give it an unexpected clarity, as though asking for it again would reveal its untruth.
He repeated the statement. It still made no sense. It wouldn’t, we knew, no matter how many times I asked.
I met Finn in late 2003. I was 16. He’d just started as a drum teacher in the music department and had hit it off with my friend Leon, a First XV jock who’d become an insolent loner after discovering a deep love for music. They played a Tool cover at our high school talent quest. It was amazing but unpopular, and shortly after that they formed a band with our mutual friend Jonathan.
Finn and I became friends that summer, bonding over a shot-glass chess set sloppily filled with Jack Daniels. We talked often. He introduced me to obscure bands and subversive Czech films, and gave me advice on building computers and fixing relationships. He was kind, generous and devastatingly smart.
He was also a stickler for detail. This reared its tidy head every year during the Film Festival. A day after the programme had been released, a spreadsheet would arrive in my inbox, plotting out the 30+ films he intended on seeing. For the period of the Festival, he belonged to film. The rest of the time he wrote for a now-defunct property magazine. He hated it, in the way that all writers working to a brief and a deadline hate their job. The magazine later went into liquidation, leaving him with a stack of unpaid features. It was the first in a series of major changes in his life. In the months following, he broke up with his girlfriend of four years, met someone else, fell in love, quit the two bands he was involved with and moved to Wellington to be with her.
I’d never seen him so cheery. “We’re a pair of *#!@ing trendy obnoxious bitches,” he wrote, shortly after moving down there. “Sitting here in our house in the hills, gazing out over the pine trees, paying our bills to our carbon-neutral energy provider, eating organic free-range eggs and cheese with French names” – all of which felt like a positive and stark change from the cramped Ellerslie flat he’d lived in up here – “We’re everything that’s wrong with the world, I tell you!”
The phone call from Jonathan didn’t make sense. Neither did the subsequent revelation that he’d attempted suicide multiple times in the days leading to his disappearance
His only concern was finding a job. Despite being an immensely talented writer and a highly competent coder, he had no qualifications and had flunked out of high school. Still, he had values and he held tight to them. “Job is a bit of a worry at the moment,” he wrote one day. “I don’t have one, and temping down here seems a lot less fruitful than Auckland.” All he’d been offered was an emergency one-dayer on reception for an oil company, which he’d rejected. In typical Finn style – and the reason his emails were always so long – he systematically outlined his reasoning: he didn’t need the stress, the job wouldn’t be fulfilling, and the money wouldn’t be worth it. And most importantly: “I don’t work for oil companies, even if I’m desperate.”
During the year that Finn was in Wellington, we drifted out of contact. There were a few short emails, but I assumed he was happy and too busy to write. The phone call from Jonathan left me with a numb, dull confusion. It didn’t make sense. The subsequent revelation that he’d attempted suicide multiple times in the days leading to his disappearance – that didn’t make sense either.
He hadn’t told anyone about his relationship disintegrating. Maybe he thought it would pass. Maybe he thought that voicing those concerns would make them more concrete than he wanted them to be. Either way, it wasn’t until much later that we found out how bad things had gotten.
That’s not to say he’d hidden everything: He’d always been open about his depression, referring to it easy and flippantly (on his teenage years: “I got shockingly depressed and grew hair like Brian May”). While he’d been open about this, he’d never mentioned his suspicion that he had Asperger’s, which came out later on, and which had undoubtedly contributed to the difficulties he experienced after the move.
His girlfriend suffered from depression as well, but whereas she’d gone on anti-depressants shortly after arriving in Wellington, he’d flatly refused to seek help, feeling like he was able to handle it himself, as he’d done all his life. Over the year, his inability to find work had taken its toll, and his lack of self-confidence had left him feeling socially isolated. He became increasingly dependent on his girlfriend for emotional support. When she broached the subject of breaking up, he panicked. He begged her to stay. He promised he’d see someone about his depression. He would change. So she stayed, for a while, but guilt only works as a temporary glue. On Thursday 7 February, she told him it wasn’t working and went out for dinner to give them both some space.
We imagined him writing music in a makeshift shack in the Wellington bush. We imagined him in Chicago, drinking bourbon in an empty dive bar. We imaged him reading a book. Anything. Our hope was like faith, born from an irrational fear of the inevitable.
While she was at dinner, he texted saying he was going to kill himself by crashing the car. The police were called. They followed him across the CBD, and although he refused to stop, it was a subdued and reasonable chase that ended when they shredded his tyres with road spikes. He was taken in and questioned by the Crisis Assessment and Treatment team. He admitted he was depressed but denied he was suicidal, so was discharged. He went on anti-depressants, voluntarily, the next day.
“I’m definitely not in a good state,” he wrote to his family after returning from the doctor, acutely aware of his psychological condition, “and I’m not sure what bloody combination of intellectual or chemical it is. I’ve had a good three serious dives into the dumps, and am very paranoid and weird. It’s disturbing me a lot, it’s troubling to the level of not really knowing what constitutes me or my intentions anymore.”
The CAT team called on both Saturday and Sunday to check up on Finn, and on Monday they conducted a house call. It was meant to be an uncomplicated follow-up but they found him in bed, severely distressed, banging his head against the wall. His girlfriend had told him that she couldn’t stay, that she needed to leave, and was going to do so that evening. The specificity of the deadline transformed their break-up from a distressing but abstract concept into something very, very real. He told them he wanted to kill himself and they told him he needed to be committed, but that they’d need to send someone who was qualified to do this. They left, promising an assessor would come round to see him. The only staff member qualified to do this was somewhere else that morning. Nobody ever came.
In that time, Finn swallowed a handful of sedatives and ran down to Oriental Bay, intending to drown himself. He was stung by a jellyfish and, exhausted, passed out and washed back to shore. He eventually woke and stumbled home, where he promptly fell asleep. He slept for three hours. During this time, his girlfriend rang the DHB. She got their voicemail, so she rang the police, then tried the DHB again, each time begging for someone to come pick him up. Nobody had the resources to send someone. When Finn woke up, he ran away again, and that was the last time she saw him.
Immediately following Finn’s suicide, a review was conducted by Capital and Coast DHB, which led to a handful of necessary changes being made within their department. These included ensuring all nursing staff on the CAT team were given the authorisation to commit people under the Mental Health Act 1992 within two months of employment, and ensuring at least two members of staff who could do this were on duty at all times.
Small changes, but better than nothing. Two years later in 2010, an independent inquiry was conducted (requested by the-Health and Disability Commissioner Ron Paterson and conducted by John Edwards). This was followed by a Coroner’s report.
I still can’t listen to ‘Shout’ by Tears for Fears without being tugged back into the small, carpeted funeral home in Island Bay, and then to the musty school auditorium in Ellserlie.
In both, the multiple and utterly preventable failings on the part of the CAT team were reiterated. In addition to not having enough authorised people on call, a member of the CAT team also asked the police to go pick up Finn that day because they were attending to someone in the cells, which was understood to have higher priority according to a national Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Health and the Police.
This has now been revised, and the CAT team have also, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, installed “a more sophisticated telephone system to improve patient access to mental health services.” I’m also told that “the system manages all crisis calls on a 24-hour basis and calls are answered by a real person”.
They didn’t find Finn’s body for a month. It was in Mt Victoria, not far from his home.
For that entire month we entertained childish fantasies. We imagined him writing music in a makeshift shack in the Wellington bush. We imagined him in Chicago, drinking bourbon in an empty dive bar. We imaged him reading a book. Anything. Our hope was like faith, born from an irrational fear of the inevitable. It was as though we thought that each naïve musing would cast another invisible vote in favour of his return home.
The family held two funerals for him: one in Wellington and one in Auckland. It cast his death in a surreal light. They played the same songs, gave the same speeches and we cried at the same moments. I still can’t listen to ‘Shout’ by Tears for Fears without being tugged back into the small, carpeted funeral home in Island Bay, and then to the musty school auditorium in Ellserlie.
Finn’s death, in all its preventability, demanded from the world a form of redress. It demanded to have a deeper and wider meaning, in the way that we want all underserved tragedies to be justified, in the way we want to believe that we can learn from events like.
Following three separate inquiries over a period of two years, a handful of changes have been made to the CAT team’s processes. They’re changes that could have saved his life – or maybe they wouldn’t have. I don’t mean this in an unhelpfully defeatist someone-will-kill-themselves-if-they-want-to kind of way; I mean that needing a crisis team is only one point in a much broader chain of events, and that all these points require serious attention.
It took me a long time to remember Finn. Not in terms of grieving his death, or in terms of the impact it had on the same systems that failed him, but simply in terms of who he was. I didn’t speak at either of his funerals. I was too upset at the time. Too angry. At him, at myself, at anyone I could blame. It eclipsed everything else, but given a third chance, I would like to say this: Finn was a brilliant man, a loving friend, and I miss him.
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If you need to talk to someone about your own mental health, try these helplines. If it is an emergency, call 111.
Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
Healthline - 0800 611 116
Samaritans - 0800 726 666 (for callers from the Lower North Island, Christchurch and West Coast) or 0800 211 211 / (04) 473 9739 (for callers from all other regions)
Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Youthline - 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email firstname.lastname@example.org