Opinion: We fund chemo, so why not counselling?

  • 16/05/2018
Image of young man during psychological therapy
Photo credit: Getty/ file

Kyle MacDonald for The Spinoff

OPINION: What if I told you that one of the biggest and most expensive health problems in New Zealand was not only being ignored, but although we had the technology to treat it, we as a country weren't funding the treatment? What if I told you that people were languishing in ill health because they couldn't afford to get the treatment that we know would help them out of their illness?

What if I told you, as a nation, we were actively encouraging people to talk about their health difficulties, seek treatment, get help, and when they reached out there was no help available?

And what if I also told you that this epidemic was only going to get worse, predicted by the World Health Organisation to be the second most prevalent health condition in the world by 2020, and it was already killing over 600 people a year in New Zealand?

I am of course, talking about mental health, and more specifically depression and anxiety.

Just imagine for a moment if we didn't fund chemotherapy for cancer patients, and if you needed to access chemotherapy you had to pay to access it privately, or risk waiting on the limited and patchy treatment available via the public health system.

It might sound far-fetched, but that is the reality for thousands of New Zealanders who are forced to go without counselling and talk therapy – which would help them overcome their depression and anxiety – simply because they can't afford it.

And these are not small problems. The most recent data we have is from the 2012/13 New Zealand Health Survey. It showed that so-called "mental disorders" as a group are the third-leading cause of health loss for New Zealanders (11.1% of all health loss), behind only cancers (17.5%) and vascular and blood disorders (17.5%). And that one in six New Zealand adults (16%, or an estimated 582,000 adults) had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some time in their lives

Despite all the work we've done on anti-stigma campaigns, on changing people's attitudes, this is one of the remaining vestiges of the deeply ingrained stigma and discrimination against those who struggle with their psychological health: we continue to deny people treatment – that we know works – based on ignorance, misinformation, and the idea that it is somehow a luxury.

However in New Zealand we do have a tradition of recognising our mistakes, and rectifying them. We sold our rail network and realised that privatising it didn't work, so we swallowed our pride, bought it back and we dubbed it 'KiwiRail'. We also recognised that after having sold all our banks (to Australians no less) we needed a locally owned bank. And so, 'KiwiBank' was born.

More recently, staring down the barrel of a massive housing shortage in Auckland, we are embarking on 'KiwiBuild'.

It is time we also recognised that the refusal to publicly fund counselling and talk therapy needs to be fixed. We need to build a national counselling and therapy service – free to all – and do everything we can to make sure those who need treatment in their darkest hours can access it.

It needs to be a service that is world leading, and that we as Kiwis can feel deeply proud of.

We need 'KiwiTalk': its time has come. That's why I've started a campaign, via an Open Submission to the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, calling on the review to recommend universal free counselling for all Kiwis.

To support my call for Free Counselling for all New Zealanders, go to www.freecounselling.nz

Kyle MacDonald is a psychotherapist and Nutters Club co-host.