Heather Roy

24 January 2018

Yesterday the Government announced its long anticipated Inquiry into Mental Health Services, as they campaigned on and which was in their first 100 day plan. It is pleasing to see that the issue of Mental Health is being taken seriously, and is firmly on the agenda of the government. Critics say that this is will just be more talk, but if it results in an improvement in access to services for those with mental health issues it will be worthwhile. I’m prepared to hold off commenting until we have a better idea of how the inquiry will shape up and am hopeful some progress will be made in an area that has been the poor cousin of health for too long.

The inquiry’s terms of reference task it with hearing the voices of the community, reporting on New Zealand’s efforts to prevent mental health and addiction problems, and recommending specific changes to the system, with a focus on equity of access, community confidence in the mental health system, and better outcomes.

The Inquiry will  be chaired by former Health and Disability Commissioner (2000-2010) Ron Paterson. I believe he is a good choice and the panel has combined expertise in this area. Dr Barbara Disley was previously a director of the Mental Health Foundation and Sir Mason Durie, a psychiatrist and Maori Health expert.

I’ve written about Mental Health Services in the past and today had the opportunity to talk about the issue on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel with Jim Mora. It was a very good discussion on what can and can’t be achieved by government. I also talked about why there seem to be more people suffering from mental illness, including those housed in our prisons.

Some of the problems with current services are financial – too much demand on already stretched services – and additional funding could help here. A good start would be to ensure that the mental health funding component of Vote:Health really is ring-fenced and not being diverted elsewhere in DHB budgets.

Other problems relate to inconsistent services across the country. Many patients live transient lifestyles and when they move their care often suffers due to poor access to services.

Much work still needs to be done in destigmatizing mental health. The hard work of people like Sir John Kirwan has gone a long way to saying it is OK to ask for help. But it still isn’t easy for many and this isn’t something that can easily be achieved by government. Young people particularly are reluctant to seek help when they need it, and New Zealand’s suicide rate is amongst the highest in the world.

The inquiry panel has 9 months to submit its findings to government and a budget of $6 million. If this is an area you feel strongly about, please make a submission when the panel comes to your part of the country. If people with personal experience don’t come forward and have their say, the inquiry won’t be as powerful in eliciting change.