Rebuilding 'broken mental health system' will take time - Health Minister David Clark

One of the Government's main focuses is rebuilding the "broken mental health system", says Health Minister David Clark, but he admits it will "take time". 

The Government put around $249 million into mental health in Budget 2018, which Dr Clark says is the largest amount of funding allocated in ten years. Overall spending in health has been bumped up $3.2 billion over four years. 

"One of the big things we've done so far is put an extra $200 million into existing services and DHBs as part of our budget. We put the biggest amount in ten years into health," he told The AM Show on Tuesday. 

But there are still many Kiwis who don't have access to mental health services. A lot of people are struggling with mild-to-moderate mental health needs and a lot of them haven't been able to afford to visit a doctor. 

A woman wrote to The AM Show distraught that her depressed daughter had been put on a waiting list for nine months to see a counsellor. It begs the question: if the Government is putting more funding into health, why are people who need mental health services struggling to get them?

"My heart goes out to those families. Anyone who has kids knows that you care for them very deeply and it's absolutely tragic when they get into a situation where they can't see the way out," Dr Clark said. 

"There are mental health workers who care about this and I want to acknowledge those who turn up to work every day and often in quite stretched environments. Many wards have been understaffed for years. Those families should keep reaching out for help because there are people who want to support them."

A ministerial inquiry into mental health was announced by Mr Clark in January with a report due to be released in October about the findings. But the Government has been criticised for appearing to not care enough about the issue. 

National Party leader Simon Bridges slammed the Government on Monday for scrapping a plan to help police deal with callouts involving mentally ill people. He said parents with a violent teen don't want a police officer showing up being "heavy-handed". 

Despite snubbing the idea, Dr Clark insists that training and accumulating more mental health staff is a priority of the Government. He said one of the things the Government is looking at is "safe staffing which is a focus talking point of the nurses' strike". 

Dr Clark said he wouldn't get into the nurses' negotiations, but did say the pipeline of new nurses coming through need to be supported because "historically we haven't even employed all the nurses we've trained". 

"I am the first to admit that we need to continue to build our mental health and our wider nursing workforce," he said, adding that he takes his hat off to hospital staff "who have worked through an underfunded health system for a long time."

Dr Clark said he doesn't "have a number" for or how many staff are being added to help cope with metal health issues. But he said $200 million "does go a fair way in terms of additional resources". 

But nurses aren't satisfied with the staffing numbers which is why NZNO hasn't accepted the latest offer from the Government. DHBs have offered 500 additional nurses to cope with shortages, but nurses say they want 1000. 

The union cancelled a planned strike on July 5 while members voted on the most recent offer, but that too was rejected and nurses held a nationwide strike on July 12.

Dr Clark said he "can't answer at this stage" whether the Government will increase the amount of nurses in the offer to NZNO.