With mental health issues making their way into the mainstream, the Government announced a number of Budget initiatives to ease pressure on the system. It’s also put mental health at the heart of its social investment approach – but have they gone far enough?

Mental health is in the spotlight like never before.

With a steady stream of reports calling attention to the pressures on the mental health sector, and increasing numbers of Kiwis willing to share their stories, the public understanding of, and concern about, the issue is steadily growing.

That in part explains why the Government sought to single out its mental health funding as part of the Budget, touting a $224 million increase over four years.

But does it go far enough?

Among the spending is a $100m fund for mental health as part of the social investment programme, intended to target spending more accurately at those who need it using datasets.

The Government says the fund will “target innovative new proposals to tackle mental health issues” – exactly what those may be is unclear.

Social Investment Minister Amy Adams said the $100m fund was a complement to the Government’s wider mental health spending, and would focus on how mental health affected other areas like housing, justice, education, and social welfare.

“Obviously the significant majority of mental health spending is through the traditional health approach … this is allowing the wider social system to say, what are the mental health initiatives that they think would significantly help drive down their pressures.”

Adams said one of the first orders of business of her new social investment agency, announced last month, was to work with the health system and social sector agencies on a new mental health strategy, which was “quite well advanced”.

“There’s some really interesting early thinking and we’ll have more to say when we put that strategy out soon.”

There’s also $4.1m for the Ministry of Social Development to trial integrated employment and mental health services, $11.6m for the Department of Corrections to improve its management of prisoners at risk of self-harm, and $8m for a fund to reduce suicide and self-harm among young Māori.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman has touted an extra $100m for DHBs to support local mental health services, although that figure is included within their overall budget increase rather than in addition to it.

Mixed response

The Government is clearly hoping it can inoculate the issue before it negatively sways voters’ opinions during the election campaign.

However, it has received mixed marks from mental health advocates.

Mental Health Foundation spokeswoman Sophia Graham said the Budget was “a really positive step in the right direction”, given previous shortcomings.

“The system has been stretched and fairly neglected for many years, so we’re glad to see investment into the mental health system.”

Graham said it was crucial that the Government learns from previous initiatives so it did not invest in “the same things” that were unlikely to lead to change.

Kyle MacDonald, a psychotherapist and spokesman for the People’s Mental Health Review, said the mental health spending in the Budget was only a small percentage of what was required, with mental health funding increasing only 28 percent since 2008 despite a 60 percent increase in demand.

“What was announced today comes nowhere near addressing the ongoing shortfall in funding for our core public mental health system.”

Labour leader Andrew Little dismissed the social investment fund as “a fudge”, and said overall mental health funding fell well short of what was needed.

“I’m the first to acknowledge we’ve got to do more, that’s why actually doing a stocktake in the very early stages is important just to see the magnitude of the gaps, the size of the problem so we can do something meaningful about it over time.”

With Coleman confirming Cabinet will soon consider a new mental health and addiction strategy, it’s clear the Government intends to develop some meaningful plans of its own.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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