Heather Roy

4 December 2018

Mental Health has been the poor cousin of the health system for as long as I can remember. I started taking notice of health issues when I began my training as a physiotherapist in 1982, when mental illness wasn’t high on the funding list. Nothing much has changed since then, other than the continuing development of better drugs that PHARMAC doesn’t want to fund until they come off patent. You could be forgiven for thinking that the patient comes last in the book of government decision makers.  Perhaps that is about to change, and perhaps it isn’t.

Today Health Minister David Clark released the Report of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction produced by Professor Ron Paterson and a panel of experts. The Minister has described many of the findings “not that surprising”.  He’s right – we’ve been talking about these issues for a long time.

In the report – He Ara Oranga – the panel has put forward 40 recommendations following their year long investigation. The links above traverse the breadth of the inquiry and the recommendations. The Prime Minister says it is a “hugely significant” report but it is “part of a longer journey”. The Health Minister says that no decisions will be announced for another 4 or 5 months. Even on the day the report is launched the excuses have begun.

As an opposition health spokesman in 2005 I wrote this in my weekly newsletter:

As Opposition health spokesman in the late 1990’s, Annette King was very critical of the then Health Minister and said this of the mental health system:

“We see a ‘cycle of tragedy – followed by investigations – then recommendations which appear to make no difference – then frustration – followed by rounds of people blaming each other – and finally another tragedy to kick-start it all off again”.

She went on to say that “this was no way to run a health system”

Well, I agree. Unfortunately in her six years as Health Minister she did nothing to improve the situation for the mentally unwell. They are still being sent to prison and living rough on the streets. The system is still as fragmented as ever. Let’s hope the new minister can do something for a system that is failing everyone – patients, their families, psychiatric staff caring for them and communities.

I’ll say it again: Let’s hope the new Minister can do something for a system that is failing everyone. However the signs are not good. So far Minister Clark has cancelled the previous governments $100 million mental health programme that would have seen several of the initiatives the Inquiry Team have recommended be put in place, including sending mental health professionals out with police to mental health call outs. As a newly warranted Minister he abandoned the national health targets of the previous government – Ron Paterson says setting targets is crucial to access to mental health treatment. Mid way through the inquiry Professor Paterson also said not to wait on the panel’s findings – in other words, action is needed now.

Another priority from the report is to treat drug addiction as a health issue, not a justice issue. Here’s another thought – let’s turn Mental Health into a health issue, not a political one. And let’s do it now before anyone else needing treatment doesn’t get it.