BY THOMAS CARR
Mental illness has long been a taboo topic in New Zealand, causing discomfort at the mere mention of the topic. Only in recent times has the narrative regarding mental health began to change. Now there is hope the Government is finally recognising that New Zealand has a problem. The Prime Minister’s Youth Mental Health Project is working to try and improve the mental health and wellbeing of young people. The Government has also realised the powerful effects that distressing and disturbing events can have on mental health, particularly on young people. In a response to the March 15 attacks the Government has announced that every child in Canterbury’s primary and intermediate schools now has access to mental health and wellbeing support.
Mental health support will be provided through the Government’s Mana Ake program. Mana Ake was originally developed in response to the Christchurch Earthquakes to help children affected by the events deal with anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses. The Mana Ake kaimahi assist school, parents and communities in helping children who are suffering from mental health struggles for any number of reasons. Simply put, the program acts to help children who are struggling from any form of mental illness.
Whilst this accessibility provided to Canterbury, an area specifically at risk of mental health issues due to both the earthquakes and the mosque shooting, is an incredible move towards supporting youth mental health, is it enough? New Zealand has some of worst mental health statistics out of the OECD and EU countries, with the highest for rate of teen suicides and 38th out of 41 in overall health and wellbeing of young people. Although that statistic is from a 2017 report, in 2017/2018 New Zealand had an even higher suicide rate.
An issue that must first be overcome is developing a national identity of mental health. The “out of sight, out of mind” policy has been the primary method of assessing mental health with the secondary method being “harden up.” New Zealand has built up such a toxic culture surrounding mental health that large amounts of people, primarily young people, are believing myths such as “young people have nothing to be depressed about,” “young people will grow out of depression,” “depression is a sign of weakness” and several more equally false, equally dangerous ideas. This gets truly scary when you realise that the leading cause of suicide is mental illness and the struggles of coping with mental illness. If children and teenagers cannot recognise that they need help, or are so afraid to accept help because they are embarrassed about how they are feeling, then they can be drawn to self-harm as a form of relief or even worse, suicide.
A common criticism for the Government regarding mental health is a lack of budgetary focus on the growing issue of youth mental health. However, in the budget policy statement for 2019, the Government explicitly states that supporting mental wellbeing for all New Zealanders, particularly those aged under 24, will be a budget priority. By placing a priority on supporting mental wellbeing in the budget, it signifies that the Government is attempting to change the narrative of mental health in New Zealand and is promising to act in support of mental health.
Legislatively, mental health is poorly represented and from a Government inquiry into the state of mental health it was found that The Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992 is hideously out of date and should be repealed and replace. Currently, legislation does not reflect modern approaches to how mental health and wellbeing is viewed and does not reflect what mental health practises should be or even reflect our international obligations. The Mental Health act was enacted over 25 years ago and has never received significant review to change in accordance with modern changes and advancements. If this legislation was to be repealed and replaced, it would probably be done so heavily taking in the considerations and recommendations of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction of 2018 which would be to have a new act, focused on human rights based approach aligned with recovery and wellbeing model of mental health.
Whilst this parliamentary release that every child at primary and intermediate school in Canterbury will receive access to mental health support is a step in the right direction, and a very powerful step in helping to stop a problem at its root, it is still only a step. In the words of Lao Tzu however, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a step” and whilst this is not the first step taken and it is hopefully not the last it is important nevertheless, as all small steps are when attempting to create change.
It is important to note that to change the culture of mental health in New Zealand begins with us. It is up to us to show that mental health is not something to shy away from, not something to be embarrassed of, not something to ignore. We cannot simply wait for the Government to solve a problem, wait for legislation to fix all the issues. We, the people, must stand up and realise that it is not weakness to suffer from mental health, realise that mental health is not something you can get over, realise it is not a choice. This is most important in children and youth who are easily impressionable, because if their wellbeing is ignored from a young age it will only get worse and worse. That is why this parliament is release shows an acknowledgment of a problem and a realisation that mental health affects everyone, not only adults. I am optimistic for the future of mental health and wellbeing in New Zealand but understand there is still work to do.
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Featured image source: www.al-fanarmedia.org/2018/02/anxiety-depression-often-shadow-arab-youth/