A group of rangatahi rallied at the Beehive yesterday to “bring the issue of youth mental health to Parliament’s door step”. 

Youth-led advocacy group Mental Health Matters Initiative (MHMI) organised the rally to highlight youth mental health issues and present nine calls to action to the Government’s cross-party mental health group. 

Mental Health Matters Initiative executive director Amy Skipper (front) with other executive members of MHMI. Source: Supplied/Create Happy Media.

Their first demand is for the government to create a goal of losing zero young New Zealanders to suicide, which will “set the precedent that suicide is a preventable issue,” MHMI founder and executive director Amy Skipper says. 

The second is getting clarity on what capacity the Suicide Prevention Office will stay open at or if it will shut down, and “having leaders take accountability for this”, she says. 

In April the Public Service Association published a press release saying the Suicide Prevention Office would be shut down as part of the Ministry of Health job cuts

But Mental Health Minister Matt Doocey intervened and told the Director-General of Health he expected the Office to stay open, leading the Ministry of Health to apologise, saying it did not sufficiently brief the Minister and that mental health, addiction and suicide prevention were priorities.

The third request is increasing funding for existing Youth One Stop Shops (YOSS) and establishing new ones. YOSS provide free and affordable health and social services to people aged 12-24 years, including drop-in services. 

Amy Skipper reading out MHMI’s nine requests on Parliament steps. Photo: Re: News.

MHMI’s other calls to action are: 

  • Supporting existing mental health workers, increasing the number of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists trained every year, and financially supporting students on placement
  • Repealing and replacing the Mental Health Act, which “treats mental health first as a legal issue”
  • Consulting youth when implementing mental health policies 
  • Creating a more effective emergency mental health response which is less reliant on police officers 
  • Developing mental health care for Māori and Pasifika by their own communities 
  • Reforming mental health education in schools 

Rangtahi holding signs at the rally. Photo: Re: News.

Cross-party mental health group responses 

Mental Health Minister Matt Doocey, Green Party co-leader and mental health spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick, Labour mental health spokesperson Ingrid Leary and Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer spoke at the rally.

Doocey says there is “a lot of alignment” between MHMI’s calls to action and his priorities as Mental Health Minister.

Minister of Mental Health Matt Doocey speaking at the rally. Photo: Re: News.

Some of his priorities are growing the mental health workforce, shifting focus to prevention and early intervention, and getting money into grassroots organisations, he says. 

Doocey says the publicly-funded health sector can be “quite constrained” and he wants to support youth mental health by putting resources into the NGO sector. 

“A good example is our commitment to funding Gumboot Fridays $6 million a year, so they can scale up the number of sessions they’re providing young people.” 

When asked if the Government would consider paying students on placement while they train to become mental health care workers, Doocey says he is “happy to look at any suggestions”. 

“We need to look at how people do placements and what we can do to support them further to make sure they’re able to take them up,” he says.

Labour mental health spokesperson Ingrid Leary speaking at the rally. Photo: Re: News.

Leary says she agrees with all of MHMI’s demands, saying YOSS do great work and highlighting the need for more “by community for community” mental health services. 

She also says there needs to be a greater focus on improving the mental health of migrant communities, alongside Māori and Pasifika communities. 

Ngarewa-Packer says she and Swarbick are committed to MHMI’s “fabulous demands” and will work with the other members of the cross-party mental health group to get better outcomes for young people. 

“I want you to know you matter to us,” she says. 

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Green Party co-leader and mental health spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick speaking at the rally. Photo: Re: News.

Motivated to rally because of lived experience 

At the rally, Amy shared her own story of being in the mental health system for anxiety since the age of seven. 

She says being “privileged” enough to receive private therapy helped calm her suicidal thoughts but that “needing to buy your way into care is not acceptable”. 

In 2021 Amy created a petition asking the Government to increase mental health funding as part of a Year 12 social studies project. 

The petition gained over 1300 signatures which she says motivated her to formally start MHMI in 2022 to push for better youth mental health outcomes.

Rangtahi holding signs at the rally. Photo: Re: News.

New Zealand has the second-worst youth suicide rate across OECD countries, a 2020 UNICEF report found.

Between 2022 to 2023, nearly one in five New Zealanders aged 15-24 experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress, according to the latest New Zealand Health Survey

Amy says “horrific statistics but seemingly minimal effective action” pushed MHMI to mobilise and rally for youth mental health issues, which are “often belittled because of age”.  

MHMI’s equity officer Antonia Eagar says their poor mental health landed them in a hospital bed, which is “the only time” they felt cared about by the health system.

They say they want to see more preventative services and continuous help being offered to young people, not just crisis support.

Mental Health Matters Initiative’s equity officer Antonia Eager holding a sign at the rally. Photo: Re: News.

Expectations of NZ’s first Mental Health Minister 

In August 2023 MHMI wrote an open letter to the Government with four calls to action, one being the establishment of a Mental Health Minister. 

That demand was met after the 2023 general election, when National MP Matt Doocey became New Zealand’s first Mental Health Minister

We are holding this rally now, because the time for change is now,” Amy says. 

Rangtahi holding signs at the rally. Photo: Re: News.

“With the introduction of our first ever Minister of Mental Health, and our new government being settled in, it is time to start showing that they must be held accountable for the issues that are impacting young people,” she says.

Amy says MHMI has “high expectations” of Doocey and feel he is “an important political mechanism to ensure that effective and well crafted mental health policy is being implemented”. 

Doocey says creating the position of Mental Health Minister is a “good start” but he knows that “just getting the job doesn't make a difference”. 

“But having a dedicated minister to focus on these issues… I’m really excited about that, and about getting more money to frontline services,” he says.

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