Matt Doocey: We need results for mental health services

Opinion 13/05/2020

By Matt Doocey, National Party Spokesperson for Mental Health.

OPINION: New research is showing that the longer people stay in isolation, the more pronounced the effects on their mental health.

A recently published article in The Lancet draws on data from the SARS, Ebola and H1N1 outbreaks. The results showed there was an increasing prevalence of mental distress in people the longer they stayed in self-isolation, with poorer mental-health outcomes becoming prominent from the 10-day mark for people in self-isolation or quarantine.

Stressors identified included length of self-isolation, fear of infection, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies and financial loss. As a result many people experienced insomnia, irritability, depression and anxiety, with some people developing post-traumatic stress disorder.

If mental distress continues to increase as a result of self-isolation or the coming economic downturn, our family, friends and work colleagues will be increasingly called upon to support us.

This is why I believe the Government should be providing free psychological first aid training online. 

Psychological first aid training is not new. The equivalent of physical first aid training, it was being delivered face-to-face by providers such as St John and Red Cross. It could easily be easily adapted for online platforms and there has never been a greater need for it.

The Government has recently announced new online mental health apps but psychological first aid training has an important point of difference – and that is it teaches people about understanding and recognising distress not only in themselves but in other people, as well as delivering techniques for how to respond to others. Over time this will be an important first line of defence in addressing the growing mental and emotional distress in New Zealand as a result of the impacts of COVID-19.

Sadly, we will not be able to rely on the Government’s long-awaited frontline mental health service announced a year ago in Budget 2019.

The Government announced $455 million in last year’s Budget for frontline mental health workers in general practices. Astonishingly only $3.2m of this has been spent so far. Minister of Health David Clark has admitted he doesn’t even know how many mental health professionals are working as a result of it.

The $40 million for mental health services recently announced was simply a re-announcement of this money, and reveals this new frontline service is only operating in 22 practices nationwide currently. This is less than two per cent of New Zealand’s GP practices. Expanding this by 100 practices in 14 months’ time will only increase coverage to less than 10 per cent of GPs nationwide. This is not the level of service the Government told New Zealanders they were getting and it simply isn’t good enough.

The failure of rolling out this frontline mental-health service is not the only barrier to accessing mental health services however. Average wait times for child and adolescent mental-health services have ballooned over the past two years under the current Government. Data obtained from District Health Board (DHB) annual reviews show that wait times have increased by 45 per cent.

The Government’s high-profile budget announcement of $1.9 billion dollars for mental health is not translating into results, with one DHB representative stating they ‘couldn’t point to where the money is exactly’ and that they ‘think the $1.9 billion hasn’t flowed out yet’.

With 75 per cent of DHBs reporting that their average wait times for child and adolescent mental-health services have increased over the last year, it’s clear the Government is not delivering on its promises to lower the barriers to mental-health care. In a time of COVID-19 and signs of an economic downturn that should be a concern to us all. In the absence of the increased frontline mental health services that we were promised, psychological first aid training presents a resource that can help people directly, and ensure they can help their friends, family, colleagues and neighbours in this tough time.

Matt Doocey is the National Party Spokesperson for Mental Health.