Health Minister Andrew Little responds to Mike King's impassioned plea for urgent work on mental health services

The Health Minister admits more needs to be done in the mental health space but says some projects and programmes take time to come to fruition.

Andrew Little was on The AM Show on Wednesday responding to concerns raised recently by mental health campaigner Mike King that there has been little change in the sector and Kiwis continue to face significant obstacles to getting help.

On Wednesday, King returned the New Zealand Order of Merit medal he was awarded in 2019 for services to mental health awareness and suicide prevention. While that year he sung the praises of the Government's promised $1.9 billion investment in the area, in the time since, he feels little has changed.

Little said when Labour came into power, the mental health system was "in crisis". 

"It is why we did the stocktake, it is why we made the investment that we have had," the minister said.

"But we also knew that we were starting a journey that is going to take a few years to put together, recreate a system that is up to the mark for New Zealand and we are partway through that and we still have ways to go."

The Health Minister said that investment includes hiring around 370 people to work in GP practices and community clinics to deal with the early stages of anxiety and depression, $10 million for youth services that continue to be rolled out across District Health Boards (DHBs) and more specific targeted funding. 

"We have put additional money into those dealing with rainbow youth, who tend to be more susceptible, more vulnerable to mental health issues. We have got specific funding going into kaupapa Māori health providers and Pacific health providers to deal with mental health issues within their communities."

But he recognised there's more work to do. 

"Is it enough? It is not enough now and that is why more has to be done. That is why we are partway through a change of programme. We still have a ways to go."

He couldn't guarantee a bed would currently be available for anyone with mental health issues needing it, but did highlight that $235 million has been allocated towards rebuilding or upgrading facilities, including those criticised recently by the Ombudsman

But it does take time, Little said, with those projects just hitting the construction stage.

"The investment started in July 2019. You don't build a new mental health ward overnight. There is a process to go through. I hear the frustration and I hear Mike's anger at what he sees as a slowness to respond but it does take time to do that stuff. 

"We have a major workforce shortage in this area as well. We put more money into that. Creating professional clinical mental health workers, that takes time as well. 

"We started from a long way back. You have got to start somewhere. I can't help the time it takes to do the stuff that just takes time to do. You put in place other stuff in the meantime, like your 1737 numbers and those other measures, to provide the best backstop that we can at the moment."

The minister said regardless of whether King has his medal or not "he is so highly respected for what he has done [and] what he continues to do". 

"The courage that he - like many others - have shown to actually step up and speak out and allow us as a country to talk about mental health in a way we have long struggled to.

"He continues to have the respect of myself and all of New Zealand for what he does regardless of how that is reflected in honours and awards."

Earlier this month, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said he was in conversation with Little about whether the $1.9 billion was being adequately spent.

"Bear in mind that that was a five-year programme. It was always designed to ramp up as it went on," Robertson said. "Then, just after the first year of the programme, we had COVID. I do think we have to understand that that has caused some issues. But I am certainly going to be working closely with the Minister of Health to make sure we do deliver on that programme."

He said it was no longer an issue of resourcing, but an issue of "making sure that we get the services out there."

National's mental health spokesperson, Matt Doocey, says just a fraction has gone out the door. 

"In two years they have barely spent just over 50 percent of what they are supposed to have spent by today."