Wake-up call to all politicians

Decades of neglect have led to a mental health crisis in NZ
Found in: News / News
Date: 22 November 2022

International research company Ipsos today released findings of its third survey on mental health in Aotearoa New Zealand, along with global comparisons to 34 countries.

The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) says the survey results are a massive wake-up call for all politicians and those leading the transformation of mental health in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“For decades politicians have failed the mental health of the people of New Zealand, and they continue to fail.  New Zealand’s approach to mental health is not working.  The transformation process is not working, and New Zealanders know it is not working,” chief executive of the MHF, Shaun Robinson says.

“This should be jolting our leaders into a national response on the scale of COVID-19 – we should be uniting for mental health.”

The research reveals that levels of distress, depression, stress and suicidality are alarmingly high for all New Zealanders, especially those aged 18-34. In the past year 73% of young people felt stressed to the point they felt they could not cope; 63% felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more; 51% felt stressed to the point they could not go to work; and 40% felt suicidal or considered self-harm.

“We have a crisis in young people’s mental health in particular,” Mr Robinson says.

“Governments already know about this crisis through research like Youth19. Our politicians and health leaders should have taken decisive action years ago. They did not.” 

Statistics for people aged 35-49 are also concerning, with 61% saying they’ve felt stressed to the point they could not cope, and 30% feeling suicidal. 

Despite these statistics, and despite most people seeing mental health as just as important as their physical health, the report shows New Zealanders don’t think the health system prioritises their mental wellbeing.

“This is despite government’s own statistics telling them since 2003 that at least one in five New Zealanders will experience significant mental health problems each year – that is nearly one million people in 2022,”  Mr. Robinson says.

The survey shows some positive results around how often New Zealanders think about their mental health, and their increasing willingness to ask for help from family, friends and professionals.

But with long waiting times and mental health seemingly down the priority list, too often people can’t get the professional help they need, Mr. Robinson says. 

“Mental health has been misunderstood, neglected, and mismanaged by successive governments and the Ipsos research shows we are reaping the consequences. How did we get here? Why do politicians and officials repeatedly get it so wrong?”

“It’s because they don’t understand mental health – very few of them read the advice of the Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry and even less of them understood it. 

“It’s because they keep doing the wrong things – despite being told by the Inquiry that the solution is not all about services they continue to focus on services anyway – and they even do that badly. 

“And it’s because they don’t plan. Without accepting the size of the issues or understanding the nature of mental health, politicians and officials then fail to have a plan of action. They dither and delay and react to hot spots while the whole systemic issue gets worse and worse,”  Mr. Robinson says.

The Ipsos research findings align with the conclusions of the 2018 Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry, He Ara Oranga, in that they show social conditions and lifestyle factors drive poor mental wellbeing. The report shows the three top issues impacting New Zealanders’ mental health are concerns around finances, relationships with friends and family and not getting enough sleep (slide 24).

“These issues cannot be fixed by health services. As the Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry said, New Zealand needs to address the causes of distress - such as income adequacy, domestic violence, an equitable economy. It needs to promote ways people can build resilience and wellbeing in their daily lives - such as managing sleep and relationship skills. And, it needs to improve support services. This work needs to be done simultaneously, in a co-ordinated and sustained way, and to an agreed timeline people are accountable for,” Mr. Robinson says.

“As we approach the General Elections in 2023 the Mental Health Foundation challenges all political parties to publicly show three things:

  1. A full understanding of mental health – from the causes of mental distress, to healthy lifestyles that drive wellness, to innovative approaches to support and services.
  2. An agenda for change that addresses all the aspects of mental health.
  3.  A credible plan to put that agenda into action, with urgency.

The Foundation has recently released 12 actions for politicians to adopt in next year’s mental health policies, which advise on these three points.

“These 12 actions give New Zealanders a chance to assess our country’s future leaders against the likelihood they’ll make the changes in the mental health system we all need to see.”