There is no area of health care as challenging for families, doctors, nurses and our District Health Board as mental health. Local problems include the awful case where a psychotic man presented at our hospital late last year, was unattended and who subsequently left and violently attacked and raped an innocent Nelson woman. Last week we had the report released on the tragic death of the 20-year-old autistic Marlborough woman at the hand of her mother as sole caregiver. There is also the ongoing controversy over the changes to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health after-hours service.
The problem is not unique to Nelson or New Zealand. Most Western countries are seeing strong increases in demand for mental health services. There is evidence the increased prevalence of drugs like methamphetamine or ‘P’ is contributing. Some academics have also pointed to a connection to modern technology and social media that make people more vulnerable to bullying and less able to escape. Whatever the reason, we need to improve our services to cope with the increased demand.
I am seeing the problems in my Nelson constituency work. Families are critical of not being able to get access to mental health services. An increasing number of Police callouts are for people with mental health issues. I am also worried about high turnover of our mental health staff.
National responded to these mental health challenges with a $100 million package of new initiatives in the 2017 Budget. It is fair criticism that we should have acted earlier, but the package was sound. Designed by experts in the field, it had mental health nurses attending 111 callouts alongside police and paramedics. I am disappointed that the new Government choose to cancel it. I hope they might reconsider after the Mental Health Inquiry is concluded.
I met last week with our DHB Chair and CEO and senior management. I commend them for the change in having mental health professionals now available at Accident and Emergency 24/7.
I am particularly keen to see progress on more supported living beds being available, more immediate support for ‘P’ addicts and proposals for increased support for eating disorders.
I also advocate a national rethink of the policy of deinstitutionalisation and community care. I am not talking about a return to the 1970s of having hundreds of people in large institutions like Ngawhatu. We have a small group of high need high risk individuals who are not coping. They are ending up homeless or in prison. These people need supervision and supported living where they cannot harm themselves or others.
National took the initiative last week to establish a cross-party group to focus on improving New Zealand’s mental health services. Issues like New Zealand’s ugly suicide rates transcend party politics. Our ambition is to help drive the policy changes needed to improve services and get families the support they need.