4 Dec 2018

Mental health inquiry: 'We're treating this with urgency'

10:03 pm on 4 December 2018

New Zealand's mental health services are unsustainable, according to the inquiry report released today, but the Health Minster says the government is committed to "significant change".

Health Minister David Clark

Health Minister David Clark Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction has recommended the government set up a Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission, take strong action on alcohol and drugs, and set a target to reduce suicide rates by 20 percent.

Access to mental health and addiction services needed to be increased from three percent of the population to 20 percent within five years, the inquiry panel said.

The panel wrote a 200 page report and 40 recommendations to Health Minister David Clark, who released it today.

Mr Clark said it was too early to provide details of how the government would respond to the recommendations in the report it had requested.

"We're treating this with urgency, but we're working through the recommendations carefully," he said.

"We're committed to... significant change happening across the mental health and addiction sector."

Mental health and wellness would be a "key priority" in the next Budget, Mr Clark said.

"I certainly will be pulling together funding proposals as a result of the report."

READ MORE: What the mental health inquiry means for Māori

The panel, led by former Health and Disability Commissioner Ron Paterson, spent 10 months consulting people, holding more than 400 meetings and considering about 5000 submissions.

The recommendations include introducing a higher minimum age for buying alcohol and increasing the price of alcohol through more taxes.

The inquiry is urging the government to decriminalise personal drug use and instead introduce civil fines and treatment options.

The panel calls for the government to urgently implement a national suicide prevention strategy, which would aim to reduce suicide rates by 20 percent by 2030.

New Zealand has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

The report said the Mental Health Act was out of date and inconsistent with New Zealand's international treaty obligations.

The Act should be repealed and replaced with law that reduced the number of compulsory treatment orders and the use of seclusion, especially for Māori, the panel said.

The report suggests establishing a new Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission to act as a watchdog, provide leadership, and oversee mental health and well-being in New Zealand.

There had been a general lack of confidence in leadership of the mental health and addiction sector over many years, since the original Mental Health Commission was axed, the report said.

Mr Clark said the government would formally respond to the inquiry's recommendations in March.

"I want to be upfront with the public, however, that many of the issues we're facing, such as workforce shortages, will take years to fix," he said.

A poor child died because there were not enough beds

Any changes made as a result of the inquiry will come too late for Natasha Sadler, whose 23-year-old son died from a drug overdose last year after waiting months for a rehab bed.

She said the government urgently needed to improve mental health services.

Ms Sadler's son, Memphis, died in November last year from an overdose of synthetic cannabis.

He used the drug to try to treat his schizophrenia when other medication failed to work, she said.

He became addicted and felt unable to stop, even after two of his friends died from using the drug, Ms Sadler said.

Ms Sadler was one of more than 5200 people who made submissions to the inquiry about her son's eight month wait for rehabilitation.

"On the week he died, he made it to the top of the rehab list," she said.

"Everywhere we went we were told there were no beds unless I was willing to pay privately. I was willing, I just didn't have the funds.

"A poor child died because there were not enough beds."

Watch the full Checkpoint interview with Natasha Sadler here:

Govt urged to take action

Mental Health Foundation head Shaun Robinson warned the government against choosing the easy, or the politically safe road on mental health.

"The government cannot cherry pick this.

"It can't just say 'oh we'll make some more counselling available, we'll do a few small things and then we'll have finished and we can forget about this,'" Mr Robinson said.

"The thrust of this report is for a fundamental transformational change, where we move away from thinking of mental health as psychiatric illness, to thinking of it as the well-being of the community."

National's mental health spokesperson Matt Doocey said the report made it clear the government needed to stop scrapping the good policy that was set to be introduced by the previous government.

"Unfortunately our initiatives, which included e-therapy, telehealth, increased mental health provision in schools, and a co-response pilot to improve the response to mental health incidents, were scrapped by this government whose report now supports them," Mr Doocey said.

"The government has set back progress by at least a year and a half and in the meantime, the mental health of New Zealanders is getting worse.

"After an entire year, this report is finally done. Now is the time for the Health Minister to take some action."

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