Wed, Dec 05, 2018 - Page 4 News List

NZ mental health services overwhelmed, probe finds

‘WIDER SOCIAL NEEDS’:The mental healthcare system neglects the ‘missing middle’ of the population who face common problems such as depression and anxiety

The Guardian, DUNEDIN, New Zealand

A landmark inquiry has found New Zealand’s mental health services are overwhelmed and geared toward crisis care rather than the wider population who are experiencing increasing rates of depression, trauma and substance abuse.

It has urged the government to widen provision of mental healthcare from 3 percent of the population in critical need to “the missing middle” — the 20 percent of the population who struggle with “common, disabling problems” such as anxiety.

The 10-month inquiry traveled the country, consulting the public, specialists and community experts as part of a deep-dive into what is commonly described as a “crisis” in New Zealand’s mental health system.

According to the report, 50 to 80 percent of New Zealanders experience “mental distress or addiction challenges” at some point in their lives, while each year one in five people experience “mental illness or significant mental distress,” at a cost of NZ$12 billion (US$8.35 billion) — or 5 percent of GDP a year.

Children and young people are also increasingly showing signs of mental distress, the report found, including rising rates of intentional self-harm. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of suicide in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, especially among young people.

Last year, 20,000 people tried to take their own life.

The 200-page report — titled He Ara Oranga (“Pathways to Wellness”) — found that New Zealand’s mental health system was unsustainable and skewed toward those with the most serious problems.

“New Zealand has deliberately focused on services for people with the most serious needs, but this has resulted in an incomplete system with very few services for those with less severe needs, even when they are highly distressed,” the report said.

The mental health system needs to be broadened within five years to treat 20 percent of the population experiencing mental distress at any one time and move away from medicalized treatment options to more holistic, societal well-being focused care, the report said.

Investment in community care and talk therapies that address people’s “wider social needs” was essential, including tackling social isolation and loneliness, addiction, and drug and alcohol abuse.

“We can’t medicate or treat our way out of the epidemic of mental distress and addiction affecting all layers of our society,” the report said.

“Well-being has been a theme during this inquiry and in national conversation in recent years. Sleep, nutrition, exercise and time outdoors help recovery. So too does strengthening one’s cultural identity and helping others,” it added.

A national suicide prevention strategy needs to be “urgently” adopted, the report said, with a target of reducing the suicide rate by 20 percent by 2030.

Compulsory or coercive treatment should be minimized, it added.

The report listed 40 recommendations, and New Zealand Minister of Health David Clarke said the government would respond in full by March.

“The inquiry panel has delivered a set of strong and coherent recommendations covering everything from the social determinants of health and well-being, to expanding access to treatment services and taking strong action on alcohol and drugs,” Clarke said.

“The report charts a new direction for mental health and addiction in New Zealand, one that puts people at the center of our approach,” he added.

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