National’s first mental health spokesman Matt Doocey says he will be strongly advocating for a cross-party and cross-government approach to improving mental health outcomes.

Matt Doocey

Working at the Tavistock Clinic in London, I once heard one of the professors remark that what we know about mental health today is at the same point of what we knew about physical health 50 years ago.

If you think of all the developments in physical health over the last 50 years, this statement demonstrates how much we still have to learn in mental health.

My career, before politics, was in mental health and healthcare management. It is this knowledge and experience I bring into my new role, which I advocated for, as Spokesperson for Mental Health, a first for any party in opposition. Two of my biggest reasons for getting into politics are improving mental health outcomes and supporting my region of Canterbury post-earthquakes, and it’s clear that both these drivers have a significant overlap.

In line with international trends, we are seeing an increase in demand for mental health and addiction services in recent years. In New Zealand, demand for specialist mental health services has increased from 2.3 per cent of the population a decade ago, to 3.6 per cent of the population in the last couple of years. That’s an increase from approximately 96,000 people to around 168,000. There are a number of factors contributing to this increase ranging from the hard work of the mental health field in reducing the stigma of talking about mental health and asking for help, right through to our young people who are more mentally unsafe than previous generations due to their exposure to different pressures, including changes to the family structure and the role of social media and technology.

As a member of the Social Services Select Committee in the last term of Parliament, I organised a cross-party visit to Canterbury to hear from service providers directly about their response to communities’ psycho-social recovery needs in post-earthquake Canterbury.

As a member of the Health Select Committee in this current term of Parliament, I will be strongly advocating for further cross-party work to improving mental health outcomes. It is not only a cross-party approach that is required but also a cross-government approach to tackling mental health issues. There is much work to be done in improving alignment across Government sectors – we need our health, justice, education and welfare sectors to work in an integrated way to improve mental health and do more to prevent mental illness arising, as well as improving the way we identify, respond to and support people with mental illness or addictions.

This wider approach reflects how the National Government has moved from looking at mental health as solely a health issue to considering it within a wider context through a social investment approach. This social investment approach is similar to the health economics concept of allocative efficiency which seeks to identify the best way to allocate parts of total funding for the best return.

Around the world, Western countries are seeking new and innovative approaches to address the increase in demand for mental health services. Here in New Zealand, through the social investment approach, our approach to mental health is being reoriented towards a focus on prevention, early intervention and building resilience. We were doing this by employing a range of initiatives designed to further improve access to effective and responsive mental health services.

The package extends over four groupings: schools-based, primary and community mental health care, distance and e-therapy, and initiatives to build an evidence-based approach within the New Zealand context. This approach is being supported by the Government’s Chief Science Advisors.

I believe this approach will align well with mental health as we know there are touch points along the life course that can contribute to better mental health later in life. If we can allocate sufficient resources at these points, I believe this has the potential to result in reduced mental health issues later in life. It is important that this work is continued and that the Government follows an evidence-based approach with a clear plan.

In terms of the Government’s proposed mental health inquiry, it is hard to comment when no details have been provided. However, the country’s independent Mental Health Commissioner Kevin Allan told the Health Select Committee in August this year that there was a need for action, not an inquiry. That’s why we had a massive work plan underway. Stalling the process with a slow and cumbersome bureaucratic tool won’t help.

The shift in the system is a great opportunity for the start of a nation-wide conversation that I will be having with our mental-health stakeholders. Please do get in touch and let me know what you think.

Matt Doocey is the Member of Parliament for Waimakariri and the National Party Spokesperson for Mental Health and Greater Christchurch Regeneration. Matt has worked in mental health and health-care management in both New Zealand and UK. He studied Counselling Psychology at Weltech, has a BSc (Hons) in Social Policy, an MA in Healthcare Management from Kingston University in London and an MSc in Global Politics from Birkbeck, University of London.

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