Officials admit Labour’s $100 million boost for specialist mental health services is behind schedule
Outgoing Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall. Photo / Jed Bradley
A $100 million policy programme that Labour promised would improve support for people with serious mental health problems has fallen behind schedule, officials admitted in a ministerial briefing obtained by the
Officials told outgoing Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall three out of six mental health-related initiatives in the 2022 Budget – intended to expand specialist services for children, people with eating disorders and people in crises – have been classified as “requiring significant attention or action”.
“This is primarily due to ongoing systemic workforce challenges causing recruitment delays and the flow-on effects of this on service delivery,” advisers at Manatū Hauora, the Ministry of Health, told Verall in the September 28 briefing.
Rebecca Toms, a campaigner for better services for people with eating disorders, said the slow rate of progress is “extremely disappointing” and does not reflect the urgency needed to help those with major psychological problems that can be life-threatening.
“It feels like it’s been dropped and pushed aside yet again,” Toms said.
The delay in establishing the initiatives – which were meant to help an additional 7000 people a year by 2026 – emphasises the enormous challenges facing the new National-led Government in a sector fraught with urgent problems.
Incoming Mental Health Minister Matt Doocey has said he is committed to making the mental health system better staffed, easier to access and more innovative, but the previous government struggled to implement even modest and incremental reforms in areas where it acknowledged there was a pressing need for more services.
Under Dame Jacinda Ardern, Labour made “taking mental health seriously” one of its top policy priorities, and it set aside $1.9 billion in its 2019 Wellbeing Budget to fund various mental health-related initiatives. The centrepiece of that programme was “Access and Choice”, a $455m scheme to provide counselling for people with moderate needs through their GPs.
The briefing to Verrall – the latest in a series of quarterly updates on the progress of the 2019 and 2022 Budget commitments, which covered the four months to the end of June – claimed that Access and Choice is largely on track, four years into a five-year rollout, despite being disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and recruitment challenges.
Officials said Access and Choice provided 155,000 counselling sessions to patients in the last quarter, and they expect to meet a target of helping 325,000 patients a year by the end of the rollout in 2025. The document did not provide an evaluation of the programme’s effectiveness or whether it is taking pressure off other parts of the system, as was hoped.
While Labour focused on building new services for people with milder needs, clinicians and patients complained specialist services that treat those with the most serious problems were becoming more stretched than ever. Thousands of Kiwis experiencing acute distress or severe psychological illnesses continued to struggle to get timely and effective care.
Labour responded by allocating another $100m in the 2022 Budget to bolster specialist services. This included $28m to establish eight new crisis-response initiatives, $19m to expand public services for children and adolescents, and around $1m a year to pay for 12 new experts in treating eating disorders.
Those investments were welcomed by the sector, but officials admitted in briefings to the minister they would not resolve the pressures on specialist services; sustained attention and investment would be needed over “many years”. But even a modest relief package has been slower to deliver than anticipated, the latest briefing to Verrall reveals.
“I’m glad that there’s been some acknowledgement of the issues, but there’s a lot more to be done,” said Dr Hiran Thabrew, a child psychiatrist and national spokesman for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.
Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand director of mental health commissioning Jo Chiplin said there has been some improvement in the initiatives since the last update to Verrall. “We expect to see progress continue to gain momentum in the coming months.”
“Overall workforce shortages are the biggest challenge facing the mental health and addiction system,” Chiplin added. The government has taken measures including funding places for 303 new specialist mental health nurses, providing more internships for clinical psychologists and increasing the peer support workforce.
Alex Spence is a senior investigative journalist based in Auckland. Before joining the Herald, he spent 17 years in London, where he worked for the Times, Politico, and BuzzFeed News. He can be reached at email@example.com or by text or secure Signal messaging at 027 235 8834.
Where to get help
If it is an emergency and you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
For counselling and support
Lifeline: Call 0800 543 354 or text 4357 (HELP)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: Call 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Need to talk? Call or text 1737
Depression helpline: Call 0800 111 757 or text 4202
For children and young people
Youthline: Call 0800 376 633 or text 234
What’s Up: Call 0800 942 8787 (11am to 11pm) or webchat (11am to 10.30pm)
For help with specific issues
Alcohol and Drug Helpline: Call 0800 787 797
Anxiety Helpline: Call 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY)
OutLine: Call 0800 688 5463 (0800 OUTLINE) (6pm-9pm)
Safe to talk (sexual harm): Call 0800 044 334 or text 4334
All services are free and available 24/7 unless otherwise specified.
For more information and support, talk to your local doctor, hauora, community mental health team or counselling service. The Mental Health Foundation has more helplines and service contacts on its website.