Duncan Garner: A piece of my mind: The mental health system is failing

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman needs to do more - much more - to improve mental health services, says Duncan Garner.
MURRAY WILSON/STUFF

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman needs to do more - much more - to improve mental health services, says Duncan Garner.

OPINION: There's a popular theory that anyone – and everyone – walks a fine line between sanity and insanity at some stage in their lives. Plenty of people hit turbulence or suffer something terrible that knocks them about and messes with perspective.

I put my hand up: I get low at times. I'm not ashamed to say I've gone to a counsellor for help. In the past two months I've had five sessions with a bloke talking about coping mechanisms and how to deal better with life's stresses, including family and marriage.

I have to say these sessions have been really helpful. There's more to be done, but so far it's working. He's helping me develop the tools to deal with what life throws at you.

Duncan Garner says the sessions he's had with a counsellor have been helpful.
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Duncan Garner says the sessions he's had with a counsellor have been helpful.

I find I sleep when I'm down. I compartmentalise and hope the problem goes away – hence why I'm looking for new solutions. I never talked properly about my dad's death seven years ago. That subject keeps coming up.

Talking with someone is invaluable. But I appreciate that I have the income and the know-how on where to seek help. Let's agree we humans are seriously vulnerable. But not everyone's issues are the same. Some people's problems are more acute and dangerous.

The People's Mental Health Review, released this week, paints a grim picture. More than 500 people gave their views – and 90 per cent said the mental health system is broken: underfunded, understaffed and simply not up to it.

A public demonstration outside the Henry Bennett Centre in Hamilton earlier this year, aimed at getting better mental ...
MARK TAYLOR/FAIRFAX NZ

A public demonstration outside the Henry Bennett Centre in Hamilton earlier this year, aimed at getting better mental health funding.

Yes, the Government says funding has increased over the years but no-one can say where it's gone. No-one has any idea what sort of mental health system we have. So many of the services have been contracted out and are at arm's length from accountability.

Stressed staff have walked away. Beds aren't available. The threshold for getting urgent help is far too high. 

Mental health advocate Mike King told me his friend's workmate tried to take her life this week - he got her to hospital at 1am, and she didn't meet the threshold for help so was dropped home at 3am. How dire does your situation need to be to get help these days? It's not like people restrict suicidal thoughts to business hours.

How did we get to a place where a suicide attempt doesn't seem to count as an acute case? Once Mike said that publicly, I heard similar stories too. Attempted suicide used to be enough to trigger a proper response – but apparently not now.

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Surely we all want that to change. As a country we've closed down mental health facilities and instead sent people into the community. I'm not opposed to community care and deinstitutionalisation per se. But it has to work and it hasn't. It shouldn't be an excuse to close up shop elsewhere.

Services, beds and professionals need to be valued, and they need to be available. Overwhelmingly, we are told they are not. It's estimated that more than 200 people are sleeping rough within 3km of Auckland's Sky Tower. Many have mental health issues.

Sleeping on the street is no answer. People running night shelters have contacted me this week from around the country saying they are now the first and final stop for former mental health patients. That is worrying and wrong.

I know a bloke, a reformed ex-gang member turned family man, who's now running halfway houses for sex offenders and other ex-inmates in south Auckland. He's a good man doing a thankless task.

Also, why are we medicating and giving anti-depressant drugs to thousands of young people under the age of 13 in New Zealand? I can't answer any of these complex questions. But someone needs to. The TV advertisements tell us "it's OK to ask for help".

Former All Black Sir John Kirwan has done a brilliant job encouraging people to talk about their feelings and to reach out for help. But there must be something there for us to reach out to. Too many families are saying there is nothing there.

So I challenge those responsible for our mental health system to make sure there is someone at the end of the line or behind the door that can make good on that promise. Right now we're failing our most vulnerable people – and their tax-paying families who are desperate for their loved ones to be cared for by a professional.

To start with we need to reinstate a Mental Health Commissioner to shine the spotlight on the sector. Then do a proper review to find out just how broken it is and what we need. The reality is I'm yet to find one person in our country that says our mental health system is doing well.

Not even the Cabinet minister responsible. 

We need to get back to putting people first. I nominate Health Minister Jonathan Coleman to start the ball rolling. If he can't, or won't, then get out of the way, minister, and let's get someone who can.

 - Stuff

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