When I was a Youth MP for Wellington Central in 2016, I decided to take a look at the state of our mental health services. I chose this topic because mental health is probably the most complicated section of our healthcare system. This is because many people in New Zealand feel that mental health is something to shy away from. Struggling with mental health has a severe stigma, yet 1 in 6 adults suffer from a mental health issue. It is a common experience dressed up as a rare one.

When I was looking into mental health services, I asked the Ministry of Health about statistics for young people seeking help specifically. According to the Ministry, 61,000 people younger than 25 sought mental health assistance in some way or another in 2015, which is nearly double the number of people nine years beforehand.

They attribute improved reporting, population growth, and increases in services to meet demand as reasons for this dramatic increase. But as many news outlets have reported, New Zealand has a culture of avoiding topics around mental health and there is still a large stigma around seeking help. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible for those 61,000 people to be all the people who need help in our country.

The big issues

Students at high schools in Wellington sat down with me last year and told me that anxiety and depression are the biggest issues that young people face, and often friends and whānau are unsure what to do to help someone who is struggling.

Evolve, a free service for young people in Wellington, was also kind enough to talk mental health with me last year. They told me that in 2016 they were struggling to meet demand. With added funding from the Ministry of Social Development, they expanded but quickly hit the maximum amount of people they could serve. At that point, they couldn’t advertise because they were struggling to meet existing demand. Like many other mental health services, they are under a lot of pressure to help young people who need it.

Combined with Wellington Hospital’s reduction of beds for severe mental health patients for the near future, it feels like mental health is becoming a more pressing topic that requires long and short term solutions.

On a positive note

One positive is that in the past year, mental health and the pressures on it have been noted more and more in the media. Jono Pryor made headlines recently because of his sobering discussion on mental health and suicide and how people shouldn’t be afraid to reach out. News organisations have been discussing mental health struggles across the country. The new Netflix show 13 Reasons Why has created an enormous discussion around discussing suicide and mental health on television and how it portrays such a complicated issue.

What needs to happen?

So, what can be done about this? The problem with such a wide ranging issue like this is that the government needs to take the helm. I believe that these fundamental issues need to be addressed: improving mental health education, improving funding to mental health services, and informing whānau on how to be supportive to young people dealing with mental health issues.

According to the Ministers for Health and Education, mental health education in Years 9 and 10 is not mandatory, and schools are left to decide the relevance of it in their curriculum. This means that while schools can teach all students about wellbeing and mental health before NCEA, they don’t have to. Given how mental health is becoming more and more important, teaching quality mental health education should be mandatory and a priority. Serious issues like these shouldn’t be optional.

Funding to mental health services for young people improved with the launch of The Prime Minister’s Youth Mental Health Project. It is a project that funds initiatives for providing mental health treatment, which is good for providing more access to new methods of care. Online projects like SPARX have been funded with this project to increase access.

These are a great starting point for me, and we should be continuing to provide more and better services to prevent mild mental health issues from becoming more serious because of neglect. 95% of non-urgent mental health issues are seen to within eight weeks (and 80% of all cases are seen within three). I’d like to see 95% of non-urgent mental health cases seen within three weeks or less, because it is unfair to let people with non-urgent needs wait eight weeks or longer without support.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, support from whānau needs to be strengthened. By improving our common knowledge about helping those with mental health issues, helping people get support and reducing the stigma around support can only improve.

When I received correspondence from Ministers Coleman and Parata they notified me of Common Ground, a website that aims to improve knowledge about whānau improving mental health support. This is a great resource, and the next step is getting it seen by the community at large. I don’t think anyone has the answers to solve that problem, but cooperation with communities to have this issue recognised is important.

What can I do?

If you care about improving our country’s efforts to support New Zealanders dealing with mental health, contact your MP and tell them how you feel. Write a letter to your school asking what they do to talk about mental health. Talk to your neighbours and start the discussion.

If we all work together, we can make a real difference to mental health in New Zealand.

If you need someone to talk to:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email [email protected]

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

What’s Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children’s helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.