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Overview of the mental health laws

Definitions of key terms and descriptions of key people

Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992, s 2

Mental disorder

The Mental Health Act defines “mental disorder” as an abnormal state of mind (whether of a continuous or intermittent nature), shown by delusions or disorders of mood, perception, volition or cognition, where this state of mind:

  • causes a serious danger to the person’s health and safety or to the health and safety of another person, or
  • seriously reduces the person’s ability to care for themselves.

This definition is important because it is used to decide whether a person has a mental illness that could require them to be treated without their consent.

“Delusions” and “disorders of mood, perception, volition or cognition”

As we explained above under “mental disorder,” one of the necessary elements in the definition of “mental disorder” under the Mental Health Act is that you must have “delusions” or a “disorder of mood, perception, volition or cognition”. If you don’t have one of these mental states, then you don’t have a “mental disorder” and you can’t be made to have treatment under the Mental Health Act.

“Delusions” include having false beliefs – for example, a person believing they’re related to the British royal family when they’re not.

Some examples of “disorders of mood, perception, volition or cognition” are:

  • Disorders of mood – A mood disorder could include, for example, being very depressed or being on a “high”.
  • Disorders of perception – A perception disorder could include, for example, hearing voices or seeing things that no one else can hear or see.
  • Disorders of volition – “Volition” means free will, so a “disorder of volition” is where you don’t have the power to consciously choose to do or not do something. This could include, for example, very serious depression that stops you speaking or moving for some time (sometimes called a “depressive stupor,” or “catatonic depression”), or when you hear voices telling you to do things (“command hallucinations”).
  • Disorders of cognition – “Cognition” is all about thinking, knowing, understanding, remembering and so on. So disorders of cognition could include, for example, when your memory, judgement or other thought processes are disrupted by a psychotic state (where there is a loss of connection with reality), or when they’re slowed right down by severe depression, or sped right up in a manic state.

Note: The definition of “mental disorder” in the Mental Health Act is all about the particular symptoms a person has. It is not about whether they’ve been diagnosed by mental health professionals with a recognised mental illness like bipolar disorder.

Proposed patient

You become a “proposed patient” when an application is made to have you assessed under the Mental Health Act. You then have the patient rights that are set out in the Mental Health Act (see: Your rights as a mental health patient).


Criminal Procedure (Mentally Impaired Persons) Act 2003, ss 24, 38, 44

You’re a “patient” under the Mental Health Act, and so have all the rights of patients in the Act, when:

  • a psychiatrist has assessed you as having a mental disorder and requires you to have compulsory assessment, or
  • a judge has made a compulsory treatment order about you, or
  • a judge in a criminal case has ordered you to be held under the Mental Health Act. This could happen after the judge has decided you’re “unfit to stand trial” because of your mental health, or after you’ve been found not guilty on the grounds of “insanity,” or if at any stage of the case the judge orders an assessment of your mental health.

Responsible clinician

If your assessment says that there are reasonable grounds for believing you have a mental disorder, you will be assigned a “responsible clinician”. This person (who is usually a psychiatrist) is responsible for your treatment while you are being treated under the Mental Health Act.

Principal caregiver

The “principal caregiver” is the friend, or the family or whānau member, who is most directly concerned with your care. If you are not well enough or not able to name someone, or if there is disagreement about who your principal caregiver should be, then the Director of Area Mental Health Services (see the description below) will decide. Not everyone has a principal caregiver. If you do have a principal caregiver, the principal caregiver will be sent information about your legal status and treatment.

Director of Area Mental Health Services (DAMHS)

Directors of Area Mental Health Services (DAMHS) are appointed by District Health Boards and are responsible for the Mental Health Act in their area. If someone believes you have a mental disorder, they can apply to the DAMHS to have you assessed (see: The compulsory assessment process). The DAMHS or a “duly authorised officer” (see the description below) will then arrange an assessment examination. The DAMHS is also responsible for assigning responsible clinicians.

Duly authorised officers (DAOs)

Duly Authorised Officers (DAOs) are health professionals – usually senior psychiatric nurses – with special responsibilities under the Mental Health Act. They’re appointed to be points of contact between mental health services and the community. DAOs help with applications under the Act and arrange assessments. More generally, they provide information and assistance to anyone who has concerns about what mental health services are available and about how the Mental Health Act works.

Your local District Health Board or GP will be able to give you contact details for DAOs in your area.

District inspectors

”District inspectors” are lawyers with special responsibilities to protect your rights as a patient under the Mental Health Act. For example, district inspectors must:

  • give you information about the compulsory assessment and treatment process and your legal rights
  • arrange for a lawyer to represent you at a hearing, if you request this
  • help you apply to the Family Court for a review of your case while you are being assessed
  • investigate complaints about breaches of your rights.

District inspectors also have a more general oversight role for mental health services. They visit and inspect psychiatric hospitals and services. They can inquire into how those hospitals and services are managed and check on your care and treatment.

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Mental health

Where to go for more support

Community Law

Your local Community Law Centre can provide you with free initial legal advice.

Find your local Community Law Centre online: www.communitylaw.org.nz/our-law-centres

Te Hiringa Mahara/Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission

The objective of Te Hiringa Mahara is to contribute to better and equitable mental health and wellbeing outcomes for people in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Website: www.mhwc.govt.nz

Health and Disability Commissioner

The Health and Disability Commissioner (HDC) website sets out your rights under the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights and how you can make a complaint to the Commissioner.

Website: www.hdc.org.nz
Email: hdc@hdc.org.nz
Phone: 0800 11 22 33

To make a complaint online: www.hdc.org.nz/making-a-complaint/make-a-complaint-to-hdc

Mental Health Support

Publicly funded health and disability support services available in New Zealand:

Mental health district inspectors

District Inspectors are lawyers appointed by the Minister of Health to protect the rights of people receiving treatment under the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992, or the Intellectual Disability (Compulsory Care and Rehabilitation) Act 2003.

Website: www.health.govt.nz/our-work/mental-health-and-addiction/mental-health-legislation/mental-health-compulsory-assessment-and-treatment-act-1992/mental-health-district-inspectors

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