By Callia Drinkwater
While the sixth week of lock-down comes to a close and the number of COVID-19 continues to fall, the fight is far from over. From the economy to domestic violence, the lock-down has touched every aspect of our lives. For the majority of us, the psychological impact of social distancing, falling job prospects, and an uncertain future will play on our minds and make staying mentally healthy significantly more challenging. We can see this reflected in the 50% increase in texts received by Youthline from young people. One in four of these concerned depression, self-harm, anxiety, or suicide. 72% of the 975 surveyed through Youthline say COVID-19 and the lockdown has impacted their mental health. In the USA, the death of Dr. Lorna M. Breen has brought attention to the mental health of those on the front line. With 11% of COVID-19 cases in New Zealand being healthcare workers, this might not be an issue exclusive to the USA. As such, an important question to be asking right now is: how will our Mental Health services potentially absorb a new influx of those seeking help?
On November 14th 2019, the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission Bill was introduced to Parliament and is currently in its second reading. Despite this bill’s relatively recent introduction, the commission’s history dates back to 1996. The Mental Health Commission was created in 1996, as a ministerial committee, and then ratified as a crown entity in 1998 under Jenny Shipley’s National-led government. In 2012, the legislation expired under John Key’s government.
What is the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission?
The primary focus of the commission is to provide independent scrutiny of the mental health system in New Zealand. As the bill is yet to be ratified, the ‘Initial’ Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission has been formed to lay the groundwork for the permanent commission to step into when the initial commission expires on the 7th February 2021. There are five members, each with expertise in management or mental health – typically both. The primary objectives of this commission are:
- “Provide independent scrutiny of the Government’s progress in improving New Zealand’s mental health and wellbeing
- Promote collaboration between mental health and wellbeing entities
- Develop advice for the permanent Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission so it can make swift progress once it has been established, including a work programme, outcomes and monitoring framework”
How does the 1996 commission differ from the 2019 proposal?
Both commissions are born from a government report, in 1996 the Mason Report suggested a commission that had three main objectives:
- “Monitor implementation of the National Mental Health Strategy.
- Reduce discrimination against people with mental illness.
- Ensure the medical healthforce is strengthened.”
These priorities reflected a sign of the times, where mental health was largely misunderstood, so decreasing discrimination was a priority.
The changing context is reflected in the 2018 He Ara Oranga: Report of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, which recommended the 2019 commission. The goal of this report focused predominantly around groups within the community which do not receive adequate mental health care, and what should be done to make care more equitable. The goals of this report were to:
- “Hear the voices of the community, people with lived experience of mental health and addiction problems, people affected by suicide, and people involved in preventing and responding to mental health and addiction problems, on New Zealand’s current approach to mental health and addiction and what needs to change.
- Report on how New Zealand is preventing mental health and addiction problems and responding to the needs of people with those problems.
- Recommend specific changes to improve New Zealand’s approach to mental health, with a particular focus on equity of access, community confidence in the mental health system and better outcomes, particularly for Māori and other groups with disproportionately poorer outcomes.”
The 1996 Mason Report, on the other hand, reflected a rather vague direction to which the report was centred:
“… a sharply focused inquiry into the availability and delivery… of mental health services in New Zealand relating to semi-acute and acute mental disorder”
The writer then goes on to explain how the parameters of ‘acute and semi-acute’ would not work, and a focus on prevention should be examined.
How will this feature in today’s pandemic?
How heavily this commission contributes to providing mental healthcare to those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic will be a question of how fast not only the commission can operate, but how fast changes can be implemented into the healthcare services. The goal of the commission is to be able to analyse the mental health care services as a whole, as many mental health sectors are only able to see within their domain. As the fallout of lockdown will not be resolved in a matter of months, the commission will have the oversight to see how the system is handling this new influx and improve from there. Although the commission was created in an effort to tackle long-term problems, it is likely that in this climate Kiwis will see some short term steps.
What can you do if you would like to be involved?
If you would like to comment or advocate a position, while the Initial Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission Bill has stopped taking submissions from the public, you can still be involved. At any time your suggestions can be brought to the Health Select Committee concerning policy in the health sector. They can be found on Facebook, or through parliament’s website.
If you have concerns
We understand that these are really difficult times. So if you are concerned about your mental health please use any of these services and get help from a trained counsellor:
Lifeline 0800 543 354 or (09) 522 2999 or Free text 4357 (HELP)
Youthline 0800 376 633
Samaritans 0800 726 666
- Page A6, NZ Herald, Friday May 1st
- Page A5, NZ Herald, Friday May 1st