Action not words needed

David Clark
David Clark
In the foreword to its report, the Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction challenges the Government to seize a ''once in a generation'' opportunity for reform.

That is a challenge thousands of New Zealanders will hope the Government accepts.

This was a large report, addressing a huge problem - between 50% and 80% of New Zealanders will suffer mental illness or trauma in their lifetime, and one in five will be confronted by it each year.

Annually, for about 500 people, their trauma is too much to bear and they add to New Zealand's scandalously high suicide rate.

Those statistics say this is not someone else's problem - this is everyone's problem.

Despite which, the report points out just 3.7% of the population accesses specialist mental health services annually.

Existing policy has dictated that those with the most serious needs take priority - an understandable position, but one which has left a ''missing middle'' of distressed people who cannot obtain the help they need.

The overwhelming majority of the 5200 people who submitted to the inquiry said that they want help, and they want it now.

Many factors contribute to mental illness and addiction: poverty, housing and education to name just a few.

No single inquiry can address all those issues, but lead author Ron Paterson and his colleagues have heard submissions from across the community, many from those who felt voiceless until the inquiry came to their town and said it wanted to listen.

The inquiry heard sorrowful, harrowing testimony from consumers, families, friends, providers and professionals.

These are people for whom mental illness, distress, addiction and suicide are not a statistic - it is the lives they lead.

To not pay those people heed is to do them a gross disservice.

There is an argument that much of what the inquiry says is not new: the report acknowledges that it wants to develop a new approach, but to build upon what already exists.

Hence, the inquiry's 40 recommendations are a blend of the immediately possible, the potentially achievable, and the greatly ambitious.

The report calls for real and decisive change - but acknowledges what it wants and what it will eventually see may not be the same thing. Political interests may derail recommendations concerning regulation of alcohol and the removal of some criminal sanctions for drug use, in favour of a treatment-based approach. The political process may also delay recommendations such as the repeal and reform of the Mental Health Act, and the creation of a Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission.

If politics do stymie reform of mental health and addiction services, politicians will need to have convincing answers for why they failed to try to fix a system the report called unbalanced, under-resourced, unfocused and requiring a major shake-up.

The Government will deliver its formal response to the inquiry's recommendations in March - some will see this as unnecessary delay, others as an essential pause to make a considered response. Whichever it is, when Health Minister David Clark steps to the podium for that March announcement the inquiry's challenge remains.

Talk therapy is one of many mental health and addiction treatments, but the problems raised by the report now need action, not words. By March 1 about 90 more people will have committed suicide, and thousands more will have experienced severe mental anguish.

They need, and deserve, all the help they can be given.

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