The Mental Health Foundation has a simple message to everyone in New Zealand today: our mental health and wellbeing depends on protecting our people and our communities from the impacts of COVID-19, and the best, safest and most effective way to do that is through vaccination. It is our most powerful tool to look after our loved ones, support our most vulnerable people and return to our lives.
We feel incredibly proud of how well New Zealanders have done so far at looking after themselves and each other through the pandemic. Compared to other countries, we are doing very well – research published in the Lancet recently has shown that while our collective mental health has not been unharmed by COVID-19 and by lockdowns, we are doing much better than other countries where COVID-19 has caused widespread illness, death and destruction of health systems.
We want to see this continue, and the vaccine gives us our best chance of doing that, of moving forward with our lives where our whānau and friends can continue to support each other, where we can have a summer together, where our communities can continue to live and work and play together, and where we can protect our people from the harms to mental and physical health we know COVID-19 causes.
We are concerned about vaccine access for tāngata whai ora – people living with mental health and addiction issues. They are twice as likely to be hospitalised with, experience long-term effects, or die from COVID-19, but they are currently less likely to be vaccinated than the general population. We have joined a global declaration to address this urgently.
We want those who are living with mental distress and addictions to know they deserve to be healthy, they deserve to be protected from COVID-19, and they deserve to be safe. We hope more people who live with mental distress and addictions will choose to get vaccinated to protect themselves and those they love.
We do know some people are experiencing anxiety around the vaccine and we want to make sure those people can access support and care.
We are also aware there is anger and distress from those who have chosen not to get the vaccine, who feel recent announcements to mandate vaccines in certain workplaces and public spaces are discriminatory and believe these measures are likely to cause mental distress.
While we can understand that people are feeling angry and upset, our position is that it is not reasonable or fair to ask New Zealanders to allow COVID-19 to spread unchecked for any reason, and both the science and the experiences of other countries tells us that the virus will spread without these measures. We want everyone to stay well, and collective immunity is critically important for our mental health as well as for our physical health.
We do want anyone experiencing distress to get help, compassion and support, and we encourage individuals to talk to trusted friends and whānau, or reach out to a helpline to talk about how they are feeling. But, experiencing the consequences of a choice you have made is not the same thing as being discriminated against for something an individual cannot change, such as a mental illness, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability or religion. Your mental health matters, but we do not think these public health measures are discriminatory.
The evidence is clear that an uncontrolled pandemic would have a detrimental effect on the mental health of all New Zealanders. Overseas evidence has shown the harmful impacts of the virus itself, which can cause long-term mental health impacts for people with long-COVID, as well as healthcare workers tasked with caring for patients and managing overrun hospitals and healthcare systems. However, the mental health impacts have also been seen in the wider population in countries where COVID-19 has been uncontained, with rising rates of anxiety, depression, psychosis and other mental health problems becoming evident in the UK, the USA and many other countries.
New Zealand cannot afford to see a similar increase – our mental health services could not cope with it, our people do not deserve to experience this distress. It is not inevitable that New Zealanders will share this burden – we can avoid it, and vaccines offer our best protection.
Connection with others, having hope for the future, having control over our lives, feeling safe and having a sense of calm are the essential ingredients for wellbeing during a crisis such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The vaccine offers us these things – it gives us the best protection from the virus which causes so much fear and uncertainty, allows us to take back control of our lives and our future, helps us keep ourselves, our whānau and our loved ones safe and brings back our sense of calm and hope. It is our best way forward.
For more information on our statement, see the below FAQs.
I feel anxious and or have phobias or fears about getting vaccinated. What support is available for me?
We are so glad you asked! It is very common to feel anxious about vaccines – you are not alone. You deserve help and support, and you deserve to be healthy, to be safe and to be protected. If you’ve gathered all the information you need from trusted sources (such as your GP or the Ministry of Health’s website) and you’re still feeling anxious, there are things you can do to help you feel better about getting the vaccine.
Talking to your GP or mental healthcare professional about how you’re feeling and asking them for support is one thing many people have found helpful.
Changing Minds have also put together some great information for people who live with mental distress, their friends and whānau about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Other things people have found useful to manage their anxieties include:
- Bringing a distraction with them to the vaccination clinic/centre (such as music/podcasts to listen to, books to read, something to watch on your phone, a game to play)
- Telling the person giving you the vaccine how you’re feeling so they can provide you with extra support and reassurance
- Have a think about what it is that’s worrying you so you can find ways to reduce your stress. For example, some people really don’t like the sight of blood or needles, so you can make a plan to ensure you don’t have to look at all when you’re getting the vaccination.
- Try this breathing exercise every day for a week before your vaccination, specially developed by the NHS for people who have a fear of needles:
- Sit in a comfortable position, with your back upright but not stiff.
- Let your shoulders and jaw relax.
- Put one hand low down on your belly.
- Take a long, slow, deep, gentle breath in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- Try to breathe right down into your belly, but don’t force it.
- Just let your body breathe as deeply as is comfortable for you.
- Do this for five breaths.
- If possible, practise this exercise three times every day for a week before you go for your vaccination.
Can I ask for special accommodations when I book my vaccinations due to mental health needs?
When you go to book your vaccine online at bookmyvaccine.covid19.health.nz/ there is an option to request assistance if you have a disability (mental illness or mental distress falls under this category). You’ll be given some options for what those needs are, you could choose “A longer appointment time” and/or “support to make decisions” and/or “a quiet or low sensory environment”. You can provide a phone number so the vaccine centre can contact you to talk through what you need. If your area is not in lockdown you may also be able to bring a support person with you.
If you have questions about accessibility or have specific or complex needs, please call the COVID Vaccination Healthline on 0800 28 29 26.
How can I support people who are anxious who come to get their vaccination?
Great question! The below advice was developed by Frances Carter at CCDHB, and we have lightly edited it.
People coming to get their vaccination may experience anxiety because they have worries specific to the COVID-19 vaccination, or they may have pre-existing anxiety (e.g. fear of needles, being in crowds, fainting). Being uncertain or overwhelmed in a situation can also create anxious feelings for some people. People who are neurodivergent, or who experience sensory or communication difficulties may also experience anxieties when coming to get their vaccination.
Understanding a little about how to support someone who is feeling anxious can make you more confident and able to support them and can make their experience more comfortable.
- Think about the experience people have coming into the clinic – is it a calm and orderly environment or noisy, brightly lit, crowded and busy? What can you do to make it a calmer place?
- Use your eyes and ears. If someone looks anxious (e.g. agitated, pale or flushed, shaky), ask them if they are OK and whether there is anything you can do to make them more comfortable. This may be enough to find out what they are worried about, which can help you know what to do to help them.
- Ask “Is there anything that has helped you cope in the past when having a vaccination?” This might offer some clues about how to help them.
- Encourage them to breathe with long, slow, deep gentle breaths.
- If possible, offer them a place to wait that is in a quieter area.
- Reassure them that it is quite common for people to be nervous when having vaccinations and that they are in very good hands with the team.
- Ask if they have any questions about having the vaccination. Trusted information can help reduce some anxiety.
- Reinforce that it is great thing that they are getting vaccinated as they are helping their friends, family and all of NZ beat COVID-19 and that their commitment is appreciated.
- Distraction can be helpful, so chatting about general topics can be a useful approach.
- Another topic for discussion can be what they plan to do after the vaccination, as this helps focus beyond the immediate and helps build the idea that they will cope and go on with their day afterwards.
- After the vaccination, acknowledge that having a vaccination when you are anxious is a brave thing to do and that it is awesome that they were able to face their fear and help NZ by getting vaccinated.
If I decide not to get the vaccination, will I still be able to access mental health services?
At the moment, we do not have any information to suggest you will not be able to access mental health services in the same way as you are currently able to. If this changes in the future we will update you.
What is the evidence connecting COVID-19 and mental health?
As the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing, evidence relating to the impact of the pandemic on mental health continues to be published all the time. The below is not a comprehensive summary or a literature review, but may be a helpful introduction.
- Six-month neurological and psychiatric outcomes in 236,279 survivors of COVID-19: a retrospective cohort study using electronic health records
- Global prevalence and burden of depressive and anxiety disorders in 204 countries and territories due to the COVID-19 pandemic
- An evaluation of the mental health impact of SARS-CoV-2 on patients, general public and healthcare professionals: A systematic review and meta-analysis
- The next pandemic: impact of COVID-19 in mental healthcare assistance in a nationwide epidemiological study
- Prevalence of mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic: a systematic review and meta-analysis
- Mental health among healthcare workers and other vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 pandemic and other coronavirus outbreaks: A rapid systematic review
- Psychological distress, anxiety, family violence, suicidality and wellbeing in New Zealand during the COVID-19 lockdown: A cross-sectional study
- Psychological distress, loneliness, alcohol use and suicidality in New Zealanders with mental illness during a strict COVID-19 lockdown
- Tackling the mental health impact of the COVID-19 crisis: An integrated, whole-of-society response
What about the mental health of people who are unvaccinated? Isn’t this discrimination?
We have heard from some people who do not want to get the COVID-19 vaccination who feel that measures to encourage vaccination and to mandate vaccines in certain workplaces and public spaces are discriminatory and harmful for their mental health.
We do hear these concerns and are always sorry to know anyone is experiencing distress, but, as we have explained, it is very important for the mental health and wellbeing of New Zealanders to try to get back to living our lives with the people we love, without too much fear of putting our health or our healthcare system at risk from an uncontrolled pandemic. Vaccines are one of the best ways we can do this. We cannot afford the mental health costs of an uncontrolled pandemic.
For those who choose not to get vaccinated, there will unfortunately be consequences for this decision and these consequences are not a punishment – they are necessary steps to protect the health and wellbeing of these individuals, of our communities, and to avoid overloading the health system.
It is not reasonable or fair to ask New Zealanders to allow COVID-19 to spread unchecked because a small number of people don’t want to get vaccinated and are distressed by measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. But both the science and the experiences of other countries tells us that the virus will spread without these measures. We want everyone to stay well, and collective immunity is just as important for our mental health as for our physical health.
We do want anyone experiencing distress to get help, compassion and support, and we encourage you to talk to trusted friends and whānau, or reach out to a helpline to talk about how you’re feeling. But, experiencing the consequences of a choice you have made is not the same thing as being discriminated against for something an individual cannot change, such as a mental illness, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability or religion. Your mental health matters, but we do not think these public health measures are discriminatory.
You can learn more about your human rights in relation to COVID-19 from the Human Rights Commission.
Where can I find more information about vaccination rates for tāngata whai ora/people who experience mental health and addiction issues?
Equally Well, Whāriki, Te Pou and Wild Bamboo have published this data on Tūtohi and keep it up to date. You can see it here.