'It ain't working': MPs demand progress from officials on mental health in schools

Warning: This article discusses suicide. 

MPs are demanding progress and clarity from the health and educaton ministries to rethink the way mental health is taught in schools in the wake of New Zealand's increasing suicide rate.

"It ain't working, it's broken," Labour MP Ruth Dyson, part of the Health Select Committee, told ministry officials on Wednesday in Parliament. 

"This shouldn't be a service, this shouldn't be a programme - this should be a core part of our curriculum... It's broken and it should be fixed."

MPs heard from three ministry officials responding to Lucy McSweeney's petition calling for better guidelines, training and funding for mental health education in the New Zealand high school curriculum.

McSweeney, who travelled to Wellington from Auckland, told the committee she had suffered from mental illness in her later years in school, and said she thinks students need to be taught how to help others who might be struggling.

"I've experienced the worst mental health I've had in the last few years for a variety of reasons, and it has reiterated that the people around us are and will always be our first line of defence."

McSweeney is concerned that health is only compulsory in the school curriculum up to year 10, leaving high school students vulnerable and without education that could help them.

"All young Kiwis need to know how to best keep themselves well and support each other, and we believe a comprehensive mental health curriculum in schools will help to achieve this."

Lucy McSweeney.
Lucy McSweeney. Photo credit: Newshub

The three officials pointed to collaboration between the two ministries, and highlighted  progress on anti-bullying initiatives, revising guidelines for suicide prevention, and providing resources to help teachers.

But the officials' presentations did not impress MPs on the committee, particularly Dyson who appeared frustrated that no clear path to implementing mental health into the curriculum had been put forward.

"If we had 25 percent of kids not being able to read or write, we'd say there was a problem with the curriculum.... I want our curriculum with wellbeing to be like that."

She said the officials' framing is "too proactive rather than reactive".

National MP Michael Woodhouse added, "I feel none-the-wiser about the degree of commitment to building a resilience and wellbeing programme into the New Zealand curriculum."

Pauline Cleaver, associate deputy secretary at the Ministry of Education, admitted more needs to be done and that clarity is required. 

"Yes, we intend to make it more explicit what that teaching and learning should look like."

From left to right: Robyn Shearer from the Ministry of Health, with David Wales and Pauline Clever from the Ministry of Education.
From left to right: Robyn Shearer from the Ministry of Health, with David Wales and Pauline Clever from the Ministry of Education. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

The officials pointed to areas of success, such as the expansion of the free youth mental health support pilot Piki which supports 18 to 25-year-olds with mild to moderate mental health needs.

Robyn Shearer, deputy director-general of mental health and addiction, said prevention can have "substantial benefits" during adolescence, pointing to the Every Life Matters strategy which focuses on suicide prevention efforts.

National MP Matt King said it is "all very good talking about prevention services", but said that does not address what McSweeney was calling for in her petition.

National director for learning support David Wales said there is evidence to support programmes that promote resilience and prevention.

"Our job is to accommodate those into the school system."

Health Select Committee.
Health Select Committee. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

He said the Ministry of Health is working with the Ministry of Education to deliver a package of resilience services that will start from early childhood.

King asked how long will it take until there is an operational mental health and wellbeing education programme rolled out in New Zealand high schools.

Cleaver said some pilots will be launched next year, and the ministries will then decide which evidence-based models will be implemented. 

McSweeney told Newshub she was "happy" with the response from the select committee, but she said she now hopes to see action from both MPs and the officials.

"I'm hoping for a report from the committee that recommends swift action in terms of stronger guidelines and swift implementation of really strong and grounded mental health education in schools."

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)