New minister needs to start walking the talk on mental health

New Zealand’s first Minister of Mental Health, Matt Doocey. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
New Zealand’s first Minister of Mental Health, Matt Doocey. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Attentive ODT readers over the summer break may recall that recently Tourism and Hospitality Minister Matt Doocey made the big trip down from Waimakariri to visit Dunedin’s tourist attractions and throw his weight behind efforts to restore international air travel to Dunedin.

There are more strings to Mr Doocey’s bow than that though and it is in another of his roles — as New Zealand’s first ever Minister of Mental Health — that he may leave an even larger imprint on the region.

Mental health services are in a parlous state in much of New Zealand — this anecdotally recognised belief was given greater substance by the findings of the inquiry into mental health commissioned by former Dunedin MP David Clark when he was health minister.

But the threadbare nature of southern services was demonstrated in December when a Southland Hospital mental health unit psychiatrist was seriously hurt by a patient.

While they recovered from their injuries, the unit, which should be staffed by 10 psychiatrists, had a single staff member.

Meanwhile in Dunedin’s Wakari Hospital, the subject of a plethora of reports highlighting the facility is largely inadequate for the task of providing mental healthcare, is also suffering from severe staff shortages and having to reduce patient numbers accordingly.

Mr Doocey — a former mental health worker himself — said it was clear there was a rising level of unmet mental health need worldwide, which had helped exacerbate an already existing shortage of specialist health workers.

"We have to increase access, and when you look at regional funding the real concern I have got there is ... a hip replacement in Dunedin is the same as a hip replacement in Auckland, but when you look at mental health the opposite is true — how you deal with, say, middle-aged dairy farmers in North Canterbury, where I live, will be very different potentially to young Maori in South Auckland.

"With mental health you need local solutions for local needs, and what we don’t have any more is regional, ring-fenced mental health funding and so it is very hard to draw a line in the sand about what the level of funding in a region is, and what it should be."

Mr Doocey said he had instructed officials he wanted a return to regional planning in mental health provision, and then repurpose money accordingly.

"But if money was the sole answer, then clearly the last government would have cracked the issue, and they didn’t."

That said, Mr Doocey was quick to acknowledge the ongoing staffing crisis meant you could make as many funding announcements as you liked but they would mean nothing unless clinicians were available to provide the necessary services.

"Without staff, those services will not open ... we need to ensure that we have an absolute focus on reducing vacancy rates and that will go hand in glove with understanding the levels of service we need across the country.

"A lot of the solutions to the issues are already there within the sector, it is having the ability to identify what is working, elevate it and ensure that the resourcing finds it.

"What we won’t do is build a more bureaucratic health system."

As for building a new mental health hospital for the region Mr Doocey was less committal — probably no surprisingly given the budget travails of the general hospital currently being built in Dunedin.

However, he was bullish about the role non-governmental organisations could play in service provision, and suggested the state could contract regional care out to proven providers rather than needing to invest in bricks and mortar.

That may well be good news for patients and their families, but a careful balance will need to be struck so increased use of the private sector does not further debilitate the public sector.

Cabinet resumes next week and setting priorities for this year’s Budget will be high on the agenda.

All three coalition partners made strong verbal commitments to improve mental health services during the election campaign: the time when they will need to walk the talk is looming ever closer.

Green Taieri list MP Scott Willis shows off his goat milking skills. PHOTO: FACEBOOK
Green Taieri list MP Scott Willis shows off his goat milking skills. PHOTO: FACEBOOK

Those that can, do

Arguably the best photo opportunity of last year’s election campaign came when now Prime Minister Christopher Luxon tried to milk a goat. It turns out at least one Southern MP could have offered him some advice.

Green Taieri list MP Scott Willis once lived in France, milking goatsandmaking cheese, and over the holidays minded a friend’s herd: he has not lost the knack.