Comment

Cross-party mental health group a reason for hope

Politicians have unashamedly used mental health as a political football for too long. Laura Walters asks whether a new cross-party group will fulfill its promise to rise above the politics.

Certain issues are too important to be used for political point-scoring. Unfortunately, it’s often these life and death issues that are most frequently kicked about as political footballs, and mental health has been one of the worst-affected.

Mental health, addiction and suicide were hot-button issues during the 2017 election, and saw the Labour Party, and later the coalition Government, promise to launch a national inquiry into mental health and addiction within its first 100 days in office.

The lengthy inquiry, which attracted about 5000 submissions from experts, family members and those with lived experience, reported back at the end of 2018 and the Government responded in May, accepting 38 out of 40 of the inquiry’s recommendations.

The following day, the Government announced a total of $1.9 billion over four years for wider mental health and addiction services, as part of its Wellbeing Budget.

While all the signals were right and the talk about improving mental wellbeing has been strong, action has been slow.

On Monday, another blow came with the release of the latest annual suicide statistics, showing 685 people took their own lives in the 2019 financial year.

Again young people and Māori were disproportionately represented, with experts talking about the impact of societal factors like high rates of deprivation, lack of certainty of employment, housing and support, as well as bullying and discrimination.

Meanwhile, the number of people accessing mental health and addiction services has grown by 73 percent in the past 10 years.

There has been frustration at the pace of change, but it seems those with the power to improve the situation finally have their ducks in a row and a slew of announcements are expected in the coming weeks.

“This is an Everest. One step at a time, we’ll knock the bugger off.”

Change will be slow and the wider plan is light on detail, but those in the 'better late than never' camp are celebrating the movement.

These announcements will include the launch of an office for suicide prevention, a long-overdue national suicide prevention strategy, and the re-establishment of an independent mental health commission.

On Wednesday, Parliament and community NGO Platform Trust delivered on the first recommendation of He Ara Oranga by launching the cross-party mental health and addiction wellbeing group.

Based on past behaviour, it’s hard not to be cynical about the ability of a group of five politicians to remove the politics from mental health and effect tangible, meaningful change.

The members are Louisa Wall (Labour), Chlöe Swarbrick (Green), Matt Doocey (National), Jenny Marcroft (New Zealand First) and David Seymour (Act).

Each party's caucus has agreed to have an MP sit on the cross-party group, but there is no obligation for the parties to accept any of the group’s strategies, or policy recommendations.

There is also the risk this group descends into a talk-fest, where differences of opinion result in vague, high-level thinking, rather than urgent action.

At this stage there is no timeline, action plan or specific strategy for the group.

But these very real risks are not a good enough reason not to try.

“It’s a massive opportunity to finally, hopefully, facilitate some enduring solutions to the mental ill-health and addiction problems in this country.”

In the launch of the group at Parliament, rugby legend and mental health advocate John Kirwan said New Zealand had dropped the ball on mental health.

He acknowledged those with the power to improve the situation had instead played political games, and he won’t stand for it any longer.If this group devolved into point-scoring, Kiwis would smell it a mile away, and Kirwan said he would be the first one to make the phone call, and tell the five MPs to get their act together, because he sees this asa chance for a new beginning.

“This is an Everest. One step at a time, we’ll knock the bugger off.”

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick agreed it was a chance to do politics differently. “This is us giving it a shot”.

“I hope this will be the Trojan horse to changing the way we do politics in this country," she said.

“It’s a massive opportunity to finally, hopefully, facilitate some enduring solutions to the mental ill-health and addiction problems in this country.”

The group’s first step will be addressing the mental wellbeing of its members and leading by example.

Past behaviour and a lack of a clear strategy warrants cynicism, but a genuine desire from MPs to treat mental health differently is a reason to hope the new cross-party group is a success. Photo: Laura Walters

From there it plans to draw on examples from other countries, and the formats of other groups like the cross-party Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians New Zealand Group, and GLOBE.

GLOBE is a cross-party group focusing on climate change, whose work resulted in the first Parliamentary debate on climate change. New Zealand also saw near-unanimous support on the historic Zero Carbon Bill, which shows it can be done.

The group also plans to commission and facilitate research and reports, which will be shared with others in their parties.

It will be supported by Platform, as the group secretariat, drawing on its connections and experience in the sector to facilitate the group's work.

It's early days for the group and the details are wishy-washy at best, which will rightfully inspire some cynicism from those who have been around this track before.

But what seems to be a genuine desire for change, and John Kirwan’s boot just a phone call away, there is reason for hope.

Where to get help

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

What's Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.

Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.

thelowdown.co.nz – or email team@thelowdown.co.nz or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825

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