What to expect from the Government's mental health inquiry response

A mental health expert expects the Government's response to the mental health inquiry this month will address the "huge shortfall" in psychological therapy. 

Max Abbott, dean of the Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences at Auckland University of Technology and co-director of the National Institute for Public Health and Mental Health Research, says there's "a hell of a lot to be done". 

"I suspect there will be quite a strong emphasis on access to psychological therapies and making better use of the online resources that are not used as widely as they could be," Abbott told Newshub. 

The Government released the findings of its ministerial Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction in December last year, after Health Minister Dr David Clark had earlier announced the inquiry in January 2018. 

It found that the annual cost of serious mental illness, including addiction, was an estimated $12 billion, and it recommended urgently implementing a national suicide prevention strategy. 

The Government's response to the inquiry had been pushed back from March this year to the second half of April because health officials were dealing with the aftermath of the March 15 Christchurch terror attack. 

Abbott, who was the founding national director of the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, said the Government has provided some additional support for mental health, but said it's "way short of what's required". 

Professor Max Abbott.
Professor Max Abbott. Photo credit: Auckland University of Technology

New Zealand has "significant workforce issues" in the area of mental health, he said. "If you look at psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, you're looking at years to get people through and complete their education and professional experience."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been vocal in her support for mental health services. In a video posted online by Labour on Friday, Ardern encouraged people to participate in the initiative 'Gumboot Friday' by the I Am Hope organisation. 

"It really doesn't matter where you are on April 5 - everyone can support Gumboot Friday," Ardern said in the video, wearing a pair of black gumboots. 

The initiative by mental health advocate and New Zealander of the Year Mike King aimed to raise money for free counselling. It asked participants to "put gumboots on, give a gold coin, and take a walk in their shoes for just one day". 

Laura O'Connell Rapira, director of campaign group ActionStation, said it's "wonderful the PM participates" in community-led responses, but said she would like to see the Government "match the commitment of everyday New Zealanders to fund mental health services properly".

"I certainly would expect to see that commitment in Budget 2019."

Social justice organisation The Aunties said on Twitter it would not participate in the initiative because, while the Government "already provide free counselling and mental health services for kids and teens" it's "just underfunded". 

Mike King also spoke out against what he sees as Government inaction, telling The AM Show on Friday it was time to address slow progress on fixing New Zealand's mental health system. 

"I've been really optimistic on [The AM Show] in the past just going 'give it time, give it time, give it time'," he said. "Well, it is getting close to the time when we start calling them out."

Abbott echoed that view, telling Newshub there is "no doubt that access to psychological therapy is a huge shortfall". He said many people have to wait weeks or months before they revive treatment, and that it's "luck of the draw". 

Abbott acknowledged phone services and online resources available in the area of mental health. But he said there needs to be stronger links between GPs and people in primary care and various other social services. 

"A lot of people do quite well with relatively brief interventions if they get them at the right time - it's only a minority of people when you look across the whole spectrum of mental stress and disorder that need more intensive on-going specialist treatments."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister Dr David Clark.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister Dr David Clark. Photo credit: Getty

When asked about criticism over the Government's response to the inquiry, Health Minister Dr Clark said the Government has a significant job ahead, telling Newshub: "The wider community, as well as Government, must be involved."

He added: "Therefore, anything which can help with this, including the great work Mike is doing with Gumboot Friday and I Am Hope, is welcomed."

Dr Clark said youth - particularly Māori and Pacifica - have difficulty accessing counselling. He pointed to progress around the Piki integrated therapies pilot for 18- to 25-year-olds, as well as the Mana Ake and nurses in schools programmes.

The mental health inquiry report provided 40 recommendations grouped into nine areas, with a specific chapter for each. 

  • Expand access and choice
  • Transform primary health care
  • Strengthen the NGO sector
  • Enhance wellbeing, promotion and prevention
  • Place people at the centre
  • Take strong action on alcohol and other drugs
  • Prevent suicide
  • Reform the Mental Health Act
  • Establish a new Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission

Where to find help and support:

  • Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737
  • Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
  • Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat
  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666
  • Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)