30 Nov 2022

Primary mental health care programme misses target by thousands

1:01 pm on 30 November 2022
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A primary mental health care programme that aimed to reach 150,000 people in the year to June has fallen short of that target by around 36,000 as workforce shortages present challenges. Photo: 123RF

A half-billion-dollar programme to deliver better community and primary mental health care is still failing to reach tens of thousands of people.

The government spent more than $600 million on the Access and Choice mental health programme in its 2019 Wellbeing Budget, but a new report showed workforce shortages were impacting on the programme's ability to reach its targets.

Te Hiringa Mahara/The Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission has just released its latest stocktake of the programme which showed that despite considerable progress in the year to June, fewer people than hoped had got help.

Some 114,000 people were seen in the year ended June, around 36,000 people short of the target.

The report identified a lack of staff as one of the main problems, with almost 800 fulltime workers needed in two years' time.

Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission chairperson Hayden Wano told Morning Report the workforce shortages, coupled with an increase in demand for services, were proving challenging.

"There's no doubt that the system is under pressure, we have workforce challenges and we have an increase in demand."

He said an uptick in the number of young people experiencing mental health distress in New Zealand echoed what was being seen around the world and noted that an additional report on the situation in the youth space had been released alongside the main report.

Despite the increased demand, it was last week reported that the number of acute beds for mental health patients had not increased since 2017.

But Wano said adding additional acute beds without doing anything else would "just be delaying the challenge that we face".

He said patients in acute facilities often ended up there because of a lack of alternative options and he believed that "in the medium-term" there would be some benefit from the programme with regard to the pressure on acute beds.

"We are a watchdog ... we know there's some good examples of alternatives to acute beds that exist around the country - small in number, we need more of those."

The need to build "a new kind of capability" in kaupapa Māori, Pacific and youth workstreams had presented an additional challenge in meeting the programme's targets, Wano said.

"These areas are moving slower but we've seen some excellent progress in the kaupapa Māori space ... in the last year."

Access and Choice was not a short-term programme, he said.

"We know that some of the workforce challenges can be redressed in the short-term by bringing in people with lived experience; peer workforces, we can bring in cultural workforces - those workforces can be mobilised relatively quickly.

"In the longer-term we have to have a long-term plan and it's going to require sustained leadership."

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