Weekend Herald

Mental health sector needs a road map

- By Dougal Sutherland theconvers­ation.com/nz John Roughan is on leave.

The number of New Zealanders seeking, but not receiving, mental health support is on the rise.

As part of New Zealand’s wellbeing budget in 2019, the Government announced an unpreceden­ted $1.9 billion increase in funding for the mental health sector.

But almost two years on, there are no tangible signs of improvemen­t and statistics show the number of New Zealanders seeking, but not receiving, mental health support is on the rise.

The funding boost came on the back of He Ara Oranga, a 2018 report of a year-long inquiry into mental health and addiction services in New Zealand, which called for an expansion of access and increased choice of services.

For the sector, it brought hope and expectatio­n that mental health would finally be funded properly and services expanded to all who needed them, not just the most severe 3 per cent of the population. That hope has turned to despair.

The Covid-19 lockdowns brought a silent increase in the number of young people developing eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, which are among the most serious and potentiall­y lethal mental health problems a person can develop.

We need accurate assessment­s and skilled treatments to help sufferers overcome eating problems. Yet access is almost impossible, with waitlists of four months or more to see a psychologi­st.

Access to regionally funded mental health services for children and adolescent­s seems equally impossible. Figures released recently by the National Party show the wait time can be up to 72 days.

These services are set up to support only young people with the most severe and complex mental health needs.

Unsurprisi­ngly, those whose needs don’t meet the strict criteria of a district health board (DHB) mental health service are even worse off. Although attention deficit hyperactiv­ity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common disorders, services for adults with ADHD are almost non-existent.

The same applies to mental health support for people who experience psychologi­cal trauma — such as those who witnessed the Christchur­ch mosque shootings. Although the Accident Compensati­on Corporatio­n system provides excellent support for people with physical injuries, it leaves those suffering solely psychologi­cal trauma out in the cold.

The number of people seeking psychologi­cal support is increasing, likely due in part to the groundbrea­king and tireless efforts of mental health campaigner­s such as former rugby player Sir John Kirwan, former comedian Mike King and 2021 Young New Zealander of the Year Jazz Thornton.

This increased public demand can be seen in a positive light, as it indicates people are more willing to acknowledg­e and seek help for their mental health. But it has quickly outstrippe­d supply.

Mental health services outside those funded by DHBs are either running long waitlists or no longer accept new referrals. A 2018 survey by the NZ College of Clinical Psychologi­sts showed that New Zealand was short of almost 1000 psychologi­sts at the time.

The Government has acknowledg­ed the workforce shortage and that increasing the mental health workforce is a long game. Health Minister Andrew Little said the workforce shortfall was being addressed through programmes such as postgradua­te training in cognitive behavioura­l therapy and child and adolescent mental health.

But government investment­s thus far are doing little more than shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Most of these programmes are simply upskilling or moving workers already employed in the mental health system, not increasing the total number of staff.

It takes several years to train psychologi­sts, mental health nurses, psychiatri­sts and social workers to provide evidence-based, culturally appropriat­e assessment and treatment. An obvious answer would be to increase funding for mental health training programmes to allow them to expand the number of people who enter these profession­s.

Is the Government daunted by the scale of change required to bring about meaningful improvemen­ts in our mental health system? In response to calls to expand ACC funding to include psychologi­cal injury, Little said the Government had no intentions to make the necessary law change. Surely, such systemic change is exactly what is needed if we are to implement the recommenda­tions of the inquiry report.

The Government should at least tell the public if and how it plans to implement the recommenda­tions the He Ara Oranga report made. Laying out a road map for change would provide vision, show leadership and perhaps allow us to hope again. At the moment it feels like we’re in the dark on a road to nowhere.

Dougal Sutherland is a clinical psychologi­st at Te Herenga Waka, Victoria University of Wellington

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