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It was not a good look, whatever the reason was for the truncation and the tardiness of production of the 2018-19 annual report from the Office of the Director of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
The Ministry of Health and its minister, Andrew Little, may be adamant they were not hiding anything because missing information can be found elsewhere, and there is no statutory requirement for the report, but they miss the point.
This report, now in its 15th year, has been seen as an overview of mental health services, allowing people to compare one year with another.
Having relevant data compiled into one report, even if it can be found elsewhere, is surely useful if you want to get the big picture.
The blurb that appears with the 2018-19 and 2017 reports begins identically, saying the reports present information and statistics that serve as indicators of quality for our mental health services.
‘‘Active monitoring of services is vital to ensuring New Zealanders are receiving quality of mental health care.’’
Who could argue with that? But when some of the indicators are missing, that makes assessing the quality rather difficult.
Among the information missing from the latest report were waiting times, suicide statistics and the overall proportion of the population using specialised mental health services.
Even the minister, who was trying to put a brave face on the situation, was dissatisfied with the explanation given for the absence of information about how many people had died under compulsory treatment orders.
The report is never produced quickly. The previous one for 2017 was not published until February 2019, but even though Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield had approved a version of the latest one for publication in early July last year, that never happened. It only appeared last month after some prodding by the media.
Through the release of an email trail around the report under the Official Information Act, Stuff revealed that behind-the-scenes officials were still bickering about what should be left in and deputy director-general Robyn Shearer wanted a ‘‘risk lens’’ on it.
We have wondered for some time if too much attention is paid in parts of the public service, including the Ministry of Health, to such risk analysis. We expect our public servants to give free and frank advice which does not try to divert attention from uncomfortable truths. Instead, sometimes it seems they act more like heads of private companies worried that any whiff of controversy will stop people buying their products.
It is no surprise to anyone that mental health services are inadequate and that improving them is going to be a huge task.
As Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson has said, the way this has been handled makes it look as if the Government is running scared over mental health after discovering it is worse than it initially thought.
At a time when all need to work together to improve services and prevent illness in the first place, the Ministry of Health must avoid the distraction of ill will caused by its lack of transparency.
And another thing
We welcome the appointment of internationally renowned epidemiologist and public health advocate Prof Sir David Skegg to chair the recently announced Strategic Covid-19 Public Health Advisory Group.
This eight-member group will provide independent advice to the Government on the ongoing Covid-19 response informed by members’ experience in epidemiology, infectious diseases, public health, and mathematical modelling. The terms of reference for the group show communicating with the public is an important part of its role.
Throughout the pandemic, and indeed before it was declared, Prof Skegg’s public discourse on Covid-19 issues has been measured, well-informed, timely and sensible. He has the ability to readily communicate the nitty gritty of complex issues. We expect he will not be shy about speaking out on issues either, should he feel that is necessary.