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Talk about a depressing statistic. A University of Otago study shows nearly one in eight New Zealanders over the age of 15 is on antidepressants, despite little evidence they are helping curb this country’s disturbingly high rate of suicide.
This was soon followed by an angry response to the revelation about the Ministry of Health working group advising the Government on the Mental Health and Addiction inquiry. Just one of the 21 members of the proposed group represents those with lived experience of mental distress.
Both situations, in their own right, illustrate the problematic issue of considering mental health and how best to address one of the biggest modern crises.
While the Otago researchers made it clear antidepressants worked well for some, there was limited evidence about their long-term impacts. So, too, was there caution about the severe side-effects some people can suffer.
The most salient observation on the study’s outcomes came from Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson. He blamed the surge in antidepressant use on people not being able to access, or afford, counselling or other therapies.
This, surely, needs to be the major focus of the mental health inquiry. While some people respond well to the antidepressant that works for them, there has been a concerning trend towards overmedication.
To be clear, there is no shame in seeking, or being prescribed, medication to address any serious health issue. But it should not necessarily be the first, or longest lasting, option.
Providing strong, supportive counselling networks is the key to addressing the crippling dragons of depression and anxiety. Therapy is no quick fix. It can be painful, and it can take a long time. But to fully address mental health problems, and develop practical plans to get lives on track, far greater attention must be paid to providing such services.
These are more enlightened times. Mental health has been recognised as being as important as physical health, and any stigma attached to openly asking for help is rapidly disappearing. That positive message must continue to be pushed.
Our young people, especially, must be empowered to speak honestly, freely and without any shred of embarrassment. It is, and must always be, okay to put your hand up and ask for help.
That’s fine, of course, when there are places to go to for that help, and progress needs to be made on making quick, effective counselling options available to all New Zealanders, regardless of where they live or the colour of their skin or their socio-economic background.
Therefore, the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry, the initial report into which has not long landed on the desk of Health Minister David Clark, comes at a crucial time.
Tasked with setting a clear direction for the mental health system, the inquiry has also focused on how to prevent — not just treat — mental health problems developing. So far, so good.
But the inquiry has also hit a rocky patch with concerns raised over its working group being stacked with district health board representatives, and not enough people who have lived experience of mental distress.
On the surface, that appears unacceptable. At the core of this entire inquiry are the people who have experienced, or who are most vulnerable to, mental health issues. Surely, it would have been sensible to have had a much higher number of those people inside the working group.
Mental health is complex, and elements of this inquiry will be polarising. The panel spent 10 months speaking to people, and received about 5000 submissions. Lots of different voices will have expressed lots of different opinions. Now, it is up to the Government to react, and make meaningful change.