Mental health is the most significant challenge facing young New Zealanders but many young people in distress still can’t access services they need, according to a new report. 

The report set out to find if the $1.9 billion invested into mental health services over four years as part of the 2019 Wellbeing Budget had actually improved mental health services for young people as it had set out to do. 

The report was done by the office of the Auditor-General, who is the person responsible for inspecting the finances of government departments and public organisations.

“Improving the mental health and well-being of young people was critical to the previous Government’s goal of making New Zealand the best place in the world to be as a child or young person (as described in the 2019 Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy)”, the report says. 

People aged between 12-24 years old were one of the priority groups targeted as part of that investment. 

Here’s what the report found:

  • The funding of new youth-specific primary mental health and addiction services is making a difference, with about 3000 young people accessing these services each month. 
  • Young people with “mild to moderate” mental health needs are able to access care but those with specialist mental health needs are having to wait longer now than before the Wellbeing Budget was released. 
  • Government agencies do not understand enough about the nature and scale of young people’s mental health needs and without that understanding, “agencies cannot be confident the services they design, provide or fund meet the greatest needs of young people”. 
  • Young people need to be involved in the design of mental health services for them as a lot of our current mental health support infrastructure is tailored to fit the needs of older people 
  • Agencies are too focused on agency-specific programmes or services and instead a more collaborative and coherent strategy is needed to put “young people and whānau at the centre of the system of support and care”.
  • People working in mental health and addiction services are under “considerable strain” and new training initiatives are needed to create new and existing medical practitioner jobs. 

“My staff were impressed by the care and dedication of those in the mental health and addiction workforce, who work hard to support young people,” says Auditor General John Ryan.

“However, they are also a workforce under considerable strain due to capacity pressures across the sector,” he added. 

The report also found mental health concerns affected some groups of young people more than others, especially rangatahi Māori, Pasifika, members of the Rainbow communities, people in care, disabled people and people in the criminal justice system among others. 

The emotional and economic cost

The report found young people have the highest “unmet need” for mental health care of any group in New Zealand’s population and recent data suggests young people’s mental health has gotten much worse over the last decade.

It says early intervention and support is critical. 

“Early and effective support for young people with mental health concerns can help reduce the lifelong cost of mental illness for individuals, whānau and society,” the report says. 

The lack of quality care also costs New Zealand in the long-run. 

The report says it is estimated mental illness costs New Zealand about 5% of gross domestic product (GDP) each year and last year that meant more than $20 billion. 

“The human and economic cost of inaction are high,” it says. 

What should we do about it?

Ryan says overall a more coherent and coordinated approach is needed to put young people at the centre of the care they are supposed to receive.

There are nine recommendations he puts forward, and many of them call on a range of agencies from Te Whatu Ora to Oranga Tamariki, the Department of Corrections and the Ministry of Education to work together to make sure a “youth voice” is built into their programmes.

Ryan also suggests integrating services so at-risk young people who are already experiencing symptoms can get “consistent and continuous care as they enter, move between, and leave the care of services”. 

Matt Doocey is the newly appointed Minister for Mental Health and agrees. 

He says there are three main priorities looking forward and supports the idea of bringing agencies together to work more closely. 

“So what I’ve tasked the officials with is setting up a cross agency implementation plan that we can actually work across the Ministry of Education, Health, Oranga Tamariki, Corrections is referenced in there as well, MSD about how we look at implementation of these recommendations,” he said.

Doocey says he wants to improve access to mental health and addiction support, start to fill the gaps in the workforce that are putting huge pressure on the sector and focus on prevention and early intervention.

He added that some of the $1.9 billion funding has not been spent, but wouldn’t say how much.

Doocey says he’s gone through the budget line by line and is looking to get that funding “out of the beehive” and into the pockets of grassroots organisations. 

But added the most concerning thing was “even the officials at the time knew they could not implement the announcements, that's really concerning because you're raising expectations of very vulnerable New Zealanders, when even officials know those services were not going to be delivered”.

The Auditor-General John Ryan says the mental health of rangatahi will be an ongoing focus for his office and will be keeping track of what government agencies’ are doing in this area to improve services. 

Mental Health Helplines:

Where to get help:

  • 1737: The nationwide, 24/7 mental health support line. Call or text 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor.
  • Suicide Crisis Line: Free call 0508 TAUTOKO or 0508 828 865. Nationwide 24/7 support line operated by experienced counsellors with advanced suicide prevention training. 
  • Youthline: Free call 0800 376 633, free text 234. Nationwide service focused on supporting young people.
  • OUTLine NZ: Freephone 0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463). National service that helps LGBTIQ+ New Zealanders access support, information and a sense of community.

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