Can The Mentally Ill Get Treated Fairly?

Iraena Asher
Iraena Asher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week the news in New Zealand has been full of reports of a coroner’s inquest for a young woman who disappeared at Piha Beach, west of Auckland, New Zealand back in 2004.  The result of the inquest was to find her death accidental.  I’m no expert on these things but the more I heard the more I was uncomfortable.  It’s a case I’ve followed with interest since she first disappeared.  It just didn’t sit right with me.

Let me give you a quick summary.  This woman, Iraena Asher, 25 went to a house at Piha Beach, about 40 minutes out of Auckland with some new friends.  Iraena had bipolar disorder and was said to usually stay completely away from drugs.  She made an emergency call to the Police saying she didn’t feel safe in the house she was in with these friends.  The Police sent a taxi to pick her up.  Yes, a taxi.

The next problem was the taxi was sent to the wrong address (about 30 minutes from Piha).  In the meantime she escaped the house she was in and was helped by some locals before taking off on her own again.  To cut a long story short she was last seen several hours later, behaving bizarrely including being naked on a street in Piha, apparently saluting a street light.  It is presumed that she then went down to the beach (a fairly wild beach with strong currents) and drowned.

My concern is the time that was taken to decide at the inquest whether she was under the influence of drugs (she apparently used marijuana but also was concerned as to whether someone had spiked her drink) or whether this was a manic episode of her Bipolar.

Does this really matter?  I’m not convinced it does.  The woman needed help, asked for it and didn’t get it.  Regardless of whether this was a case of the influence of drugs or the effects of her mental illness, she needed help but the Police seemingly didn’t take her need seriously sending only a taxi to pick her up.


The Police now seem to take the view that her behaviour was due to her mental illness.  In which case I’m inclined to think that her death was the accidental drowning caused by Police negligence.  But then they didn’t ask me.  What I’m now wondering is why aren’t mental health groups speaking out against this ill-treatment of someone mentally ill?  It doesn’t matter to me whether this was caused by bipolar, drugs, alcohol or… well, whatever.

Here was an obviously vulnerable, distressed woman who spent her last hours in some sort of hell.  Iraena’s body was never found, and considering that coast’s wild reputation that’s not at all surprising.  Her father said he saw no point in the inquest.  It didn’t bring her back and it didn’t answer any of their questions.  To rule the death purely accidental without following up the failures on behalf of the Police, seems like a complete waste to me too.  Do we just accept that sending a taxi for a mentally ill person making an emergency call is acceptable?  I don’t think so.  It’s wrong.

Interestingly the coroner criticised the people who tried to help her for not calling the Police while she was at their home.  That seems rather ironic to me.  One call to the Police achieved a taxi sent to the wrong part of the city, so how would another call have helped?  It seems rather like the quote:

“Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.”

―    Albert Einstein

I’m wondering just who it is that is apparently insane?

I’m inclined to think this is about the stigma of the mentally ill as well as about how a person is treated when they’re in distress and in need of help (even if it is drug induced).  Did they not take her call for help seriously because they knew she had Bipolar?  And what would they have done differently had they not known?  What would they do for any other person making an emergency call?

I don’t actually think what really happened at Piha Beach really matters now.  Tracing her last steps seems rather pointless.  What matters is that a good person was lost, and we will never know just what happened to her.  We would do that woman more justice by asking why this was allowed to happen, and what we can do to make sure it never happens again?  We need to make sure that authorities treat mentally ill clients with the same dignity and respect as those who are not mentally ill.  Is that so difficult?

“…I am the girl you see in the photograph from some party someplace or some picnic in the park, the one who is in fact soon to be gone. When you look at the picture again, I want to assure you, I will no longer be there. I will be erased from history, like a traitor in the Soviet Union. Because with every day that goes by, I feel myself becoming more and more invisible…”  

―    Elizabeth Wurtzel,    Prozac Nation

On a final, unrelated note:

I know I have created confusion this week by changing the name of my blog and then the domain name.  So if you missed my posts from this past week, and had difficulty finding them, I apologise.  Those posts are as follows:


14 thoughts on “Can The Mentally Ill Get Treated Fairly?

  1. Something I’ve never understood about America, even before I knew I had the illnesses that I have, is that if you try to commit suicide here and fail then you are placed under arrest, given medical treatment and then sent to jail where you wait for someone to bail you out, if you are allowed to receive bail. If no one can/will bail you out or if you’re not allowed bail, you have to stay in jail until it’s time for your arraignment. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you get whoever’s turn is on the roster next to represent someone with no money. I guess it depends on where you’re arrested (the town you’re in) as to whether this is good or not. If some arrangement/agreement isn’t met/made at that point, I guess you get sent back to jail until it’s time for your trial. THEN a determination is made whether you’re competent to stand trail.

    WHY are they putting an obviously sick person in jail instead of in the hospital?!? At the absolutely lowest point in your life, you’re arrested?!? Give me a break!!! I’m not sure how far this goes — if you’re immediately sent to a psych ward because no judge will grant bail or not. I do know that I’ve read of/heard about mentally ill people having to choose between getting on their meds and being considered well enough to stand trial, well enough to be convicted, well enough to be sentenced to death for a horrible crime they committed when they were not in their right minds or on meds at all. I’ve read of/heard about lawyers who force their clients to go off their meds so they’ll be deemed “mentally incompetent to stand trial.” This way they’ll be sent to a psych hospital for so many months or years, thereby postponing any trial. This has also happened to people on death row — how can the state kill someone who’s mentally “incompetent”?


    1. P.S. The ones on death row that stay off their meds, continue to stay on death row from what I understand!! It’s basically lawyers, judges — the entire legal system screwing with someone’s life simply because of a mental illness!!

    2. I totally agree with you. It’s all so wrong. In NZ it is still illegal to try to kill yourself but the Police very rarely do anything other than send you straight to a psyh hospital but to treat someone who is suffering as a criminal just makes me want to cry.

  2. Dorothy

    How sad. I think of my own daughters when ever I read a story similar to this and I wonder when will we all treat each other with humanity.

  3. Kelley Berry

    How very sad. If help is needed, it is neede. Doesn’t matter why. The only point where her mental condition should have come in to play is when the police had her in their custody, safe and sound, trying to decide if she could just go home or needed to go to a hospital for physical or mental injuries.

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  5. I am one of the woman who gave Iraena a safe haven that dreadful night. To clarify: Iraena spoke to the police THREE times that night before she came to our home. The moment she, as an adult, decided to leave the safety of our home we called 111. THAT is when the police responded in an appropriate fashion. Cars, helicopters, dogs etc. Shame they waited so long to do that.

    1. Hi Bobbie. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I totally agree with you that it is an appalling shame the Police took so long to act, and I also think it is appalling that you were finger-pointed by the coroner in the way you were. If anything they should have been thanking you for helping Iraena as much as you were able. I truly hope that you don’t take to heart what was said, and that you know that you did was the right thing. Thank you. Cate

      1. Thanks. Just thought I’d let you know that the picture at the top of this page is ‘blank’ . . . looks like a photo or something should be there but its not 🙂

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