The health minister has rejected National’s request for a youth mental health summit, saying the Government is already doing plenty to help those suffering distress due to the pandemic
National’s mental health spokesperson Matt Doocey wrote to Health Minister Andrew Little last month formally requesting a youth mental health summit be convened so those with expertise can collaborate on how best to deal with the growing demand for services.
On Wednesday Little responded to Doocey’s letter declining his request and told Newsroom he’s confident resources are going where they’re needed now that there’s new leadership within the mental health team at the Ministry of Health.
“I had issues with the leader of the directorate last year and you’ve got a different person in charge now.
“What I find now is the response from the ministry isn’t defensive when we get evidence there is greater need or we have to think differently about doing stuff,’’ Little told Newsroom.
Little’s criticism was of Toni Gutschlag, who got caught up in several controversies in the mental health lead role – resulting in Director-General of Health Doctor Ashley Bloomfield having to apologise to the minister.
Gutschlag has since left the position.
In January Doocey went public with his summit proposal and in the weeks since has received a range of support from counsellors and service providers to medical practitioners and youth affected by mental distress.
He says his motivation for a summit is driven by the “early warning signs of increased mental distress” in young people because of the pandemic and needing to find solutions for what has the potential to become a “shadow pandemic’’.
“It was actually good to feel acknowledged. It was the first time I felt it had been really addressed in this pandemic and it felt spot on with the conversations I’d been having with my peers.”
– Jiya Rana, Auckland university student
Auckland university student, Jiya Rana, is in her second year at Massey and says she felt finally listened to when she saw reports of Doocey’s push for a youth mental health summit.
“It was actually good to feel acknowledged. It was the first time I felt it had been really addressed in this pandemic and it felt spot on with the conversations I’d been having with my peers,’’ she said.
The transition to university and on to working life already brought a lot of pressure and anxiety, but things were notably tougher, Rana said.
“It’s more pronounced because of the effects of the pandemic and the uncertainty.
“Everyone I know in Auckland is feeling socially deprived and it’s a completely different thing dealing with people you love in person – after three months in lockdown it felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel.’’
Rana told Newsroom she’d like all politicians to be more aware of what youth are going through and thought a summit involving both professionals with expertise and youth telling their own stories would help with feeling “heard and understood’’.
“I don’t think there’s enough conversation about it and we have a culture of sweeping it under the carpet,’’ she said.
For youth, Rana said mental health worries are 100 percent top of mind and through her own friends and friends of friends she is increasingly hearing about incidents of self-harming, eating disorders and family violence.
“I’m seeing a lot of my friends just toughing it out on their own … it’s hard to find the right places and resources for help, you have to really look for it rather than it being easily accessible,’’ she said.
“What I find now is the response from the ministry isn’t defensive when we get evidence there is greater need or we have to think differently about doing stuff.”
– Andrew Little, Health Minister
In Auckland, where almost 30 percent of the population identifies as Asian, the demands on mental health services have also increased, says Asian Family Services national director Kelly Feng.
Discrimination and bullying features heavily in the calls answered through the helpline and Feng told Newsroom there is also an increase in calls from parents worried about their teenagers online gaming and being targeted by gambling sites.
“We have parents calling us saying they don’t know how to manage their teenagers’ gaming – they don’t want to go to school because they’ve been gaming all night.
“It has emerged out of long-term lockdowns, which is impacting on life in general but with young people more so because they need that social space at school to learn but are basically locked up for long periods,’’ she told Newsroom.
Discrimination and bullying around Covid and the origin of the virus is also impacting Asian youth and for some, household poverty is also becoming a mental distress, Feng said.
“A lot of families have businesses that have shut down because of Covid – migrants running in tourism companies, which have been impacted.
“There’s families that have had high incomes and suddenly they’re quite poor and finding themselves on a benefit and children are having to move schools because of it,’’ she said.
Asian Family Services has a helpline that employs two full-time staff and another 18 are available part-time. Eight different languages are catered for to provide immediate support.
Feng says their own research shows anxiety levels are considerably up during the pandemic and younger Asians, under the age of 30, are at much higher risk of depression.
“We need to make Asian health visible in the national strategy,’’ Feng told Newsroom.
“When we’re talking about how best to serve New Zealand’s populations, more consideration needs to be given to migrant communities.’’
“We’ve got a small window here to get ahead of the bow wave of mental distress and an urgent summit is the right way to deal with it.”
– Matt Doocey, National
Feng supports a youth mental health summit to develop a national strategy and give a place for all voices to be heard.
Doocey told Newsroom he’d been overwhelmed with the support for a summit from a wide range of people.
“We’ve got a small window here to get ahead of the bow wave of mental distress and an urgent summit is the right way to deal with it,’’ he said.
“I’ve been contacted by young people, I’ve had calls from parents and grandparents, professionals, medical specialists, they’re all seeing the same concerning signs.’’
Doocey says the Government is swamped with reform work in the health sector but the focus needs to shift.
“My point is the pandemic has overtaken all these issues and the Government needs to be flexible enough to pivot and say, hold on this is a key priority.’’
The National Party has been calling for a bipartisan approach to mental health, with leader Christopher Luxon as recently as last week telling Newsroom he saw it as an obvious area where the Opposition and Government could work together.
But Little says the Government is across the issue and a major international conference is being hosted by New Zealand later this year on mental health issues. He doesn’t intend to run a localised summit.
“The issues of youth mental health as a consequence of the pandemic we have been taking seriously since last year, which is why we gave extra funding, particularly in Auckland, for a variety of youth organisations dealing with youth mental health.’’
One of the reasons the Government has been so keen to keep schools open and get children back to school is because of the impact not attending has on them.
“That has driven our decision-making.’’
Little told Newsroom the mental health directorate at the Ministry of Health is “now actively keeping abreast of trends and what is happening’’.