PM Jacinda Ardern on the mental health inquiry

An independent commission for mental health and addiction, the completion of the national suicide prevention strategy and an overhaul of mental health legislation are among the recommendations accepted by the Government, in their response to He Ara Oranga, the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry.

The Government has accepted, accepted in principle or agreed to further consideration of 38 of the 40 recommendations made by the Inquiry Panel.

“The Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction laid down a challenge to the Government and to all New Zealanders. We need to transform our thinking and approach to mental health and addiction – and that is what we are committing to today,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, in her response today.

“We all know people who have lived with mental health and addiction challenges. This touches every community and every family and we must do better.”

The Government has also said it will significantly increase access to publicly funded mental health and addiction services for people with mild to moderate needs, as well as broaden the types of services available.

“Just delivering on the first recommendation around services to meet mild to moderate mental health and addiction needs will be transformational.

“We will need to build entirely new services, train hundreds of new staff and build new facilities across Aotearoa,” said the Prime Minister.

Details of the investment involved start with tomorrow’s Wellbeing Budget, but “will take years”, she said.

Health Minister David Clark reiterated this message.

“There are no quick-fixes for these issues. The drivers of mental health and addiction issues are deep seated and long standing, but as a Government we are committed to tackling them.”

National Mental Health spokesperson Matt Doocey says it will come down to funding.

“If this Government is serious about making mental health services more accessible for New Zealanders, then a total of $1.9 billion of extra money over four years is necessary for the Government to increase access to the Inquiry’s indicative target of 20 per cent of the population having access to mental health services over five years.”

Green Party mental health spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick also said all eyes will be on tomorrow’s Budget.

“Significantly more money will be needed in tomorrow’s Budget if we are to enact the first recommendation to help people with mild to moderate needs.

“Addiction services are also overdue for a Budget increase, and this is a part of the Green Party confidence and supply agreement,” said Swarbrick.

The Government rejected two of the Inquiry’s recommendations. These were directing the State Services Commission to report on options for creating a ‘locus of responsibility’ for social wellbeing within Government, and setting a target of 20 per cent reduction in suicide rates by 2030.

Dr Clark said views were mixed about establishing a target.

“We’re not prepared to sign up to a suicide target because every life matters, and one death by suicide is one death too many.”

Reaction to Government response  

Dr Ruth Cunningham, Senior Research Fellow and Public Health Physician, University of Otago, Wellington, is pleased to see the move towards re-establishing an independent Mental Health Commission, with a broadened focus on wellbeing, and a plan to move on with the stalled suicide prevention strategy.

However, she is disappointed not to see stronger stance on alcohol policy.

“It is good to see a focus on equity in various parts of the response. However, a more explicit focus on Māori mental health in the Government’s response could have gone some way to addressing some of the public concerns about the Inquiry report,” she says.

Dr Dougal Sutherland, Clinical Psychologist, Victoria University of Wellington, says while the return of the commission is welcomed, the fact that it is needed shows just how far the sector hasn’t come and that DHBs have largely failed to address the mental health needs of most New Zealanders.

“The Commission will need to lead the development of new models of delivering mental health services to release these from the grip of DHBs who are focused on helping those people with high acuity and severity whilst at the same time trying to endlessly save money.

“It remains to be seen whether the government’s response to the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry will go deep enough to fundamentally alter how mental health services are delivered in the public sector. Urgent change is needed in how mental health services in the public sector are managed and delivered in order to stop the exodus of psychologists from DHBs which, in some areas, is reaching epidemic proportions,” says Sutherland.

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