Victorian royal commission on mental health: Mum reveals daughter’s torment
It was the start of a nightmare that seems without end for the girl and her family.
Since then, Natasha has been variously diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, conduct disorder, autism spectrum disorder, separation anxiety and antisocial personality disorder.
Now 16, she has for years bounced in and out of residential care, secure welfare, the family home and psychiatric wards.
She has experienced homelessness, assaults, forced medication and trauma. She thinks and speaks about suicide regularly. She has barely gone to school since year 8.
Her mother, Melanie*, gave harrowing evidence to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System on Thursday, where she detailed her family’s “shocking” experiences with the state’s mental health system.
It has driven Melanie – who remains the primary carer for her daughter – to at least two breakdowns.
After the car episode, staff at the regional hospital near their home told Melanie that Natasha probably had conduct disorder and it would be inappropriate to admit her to hospital.
Given the girl’s threats to her family, the only options were for Natasha to stay with her father or to go into state care.
“I was just so shocked that I couldn’t access any services for my daughter,” Melanie told the royal commission. “There was just a rapid decline in her mental health during that time.”
Natasha lived with her aunt for a year and then went into residential care, which was an “incredibly traumatic” experience, Melanie said. Soon the teenager was choosing to sleep rough on the streets, rather than be in residential care.
“She experienced incredible trauma that she wouldn’t elaborate on … she was using drugs. She was really struggling. I was struggling to contact her.”
Natasha was 14.
The two years since have been marked by institutional failures. At one point, a “gravely ill” Natasha threw a packet of pasta at police, who pepper-sprayed her, Melanie said.
When Natasha was taken to hospital, they “cleaned up” her self-inflicted wounds and sent her home with a sleeping tablet.
Natasha took off again to sleep rough, before again being put into secure welfare for her own safety.
In desperation, Melanie left her partner and son and rented a small home for herself and her daughter in Melbourne. That lasted 14 months, but her daughter began taking drugs and the situation again deteriorated.
Back in care, Natasha was assaulted and again told her mother she was suicidal. Again she was admitted to psychiatric care, and again she was released after a few days, feeling suicidal.
“We were told to hide the knives,” Melanie said. “And in those dark hours of the night that no one else is aware of, I had to hold my child crying all the time.”
After eight years, their nightmare is without end.
“Myself and my daughter have put up our hands for help so many times and we have not received it,” Melanie said.
Every time her daughter was admitted to a psychiatric facility or secure welfare, she was able to leave, Melanie said.
“[A] therapeutic place in a contained environment – that’s just never been available for my daughter. It gets too much and she’s allowed to go. And she actively goes and traumatises herself in the community again.”
The royal commission continues hearings on Friday.
*Not their real names
If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 131114 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
Bianca Hall is a senior reporter for The Age. She has previously worked in the Canberra bureau as immigration correspondent, Sunday political correspondent and deputy editor.