Editorial: Youth health centre too important to be allowed to go under

New Zealand is well-documented as having a range of youth problems, including physical and mental health issues, at a level which is higher than in comparable nations.

It is generally acknowledged that these must be dealt with now as, left untreated today, the problems can only escalate. It is therefore bitterly disappointing that Christchurch's 198 youth health centre must close its doors at the end of April because of funding problems.

This centre was set up 15 years ago to provide free sexual and mental health care as well as GP services for those under the age of 25 years. Over this period it has developed a nationwide reputation as a pioneer in meeting youth health needs and it has been used as a model for youth centres in other cities.

But providing its health services comes at a cost for the centre. It requires about $700,000 for its running costs, with the biggest share traditionally coming from the Canterbury District Health Board.

In 2008-09 the centre received $553,087 from the board, but it was forecast to receive the lesser amount of $461,114 this year and, unable to find alternative funding to make up the shortfall, it faced bankruptcy.

Apparently one reason for this was that funding has shifted to a capitation system based on payments per registered patient and many of the centre's clients were registered with their GPs elsewhere.

The need for the centre is self-evident. According to a Health Ministry report, New Zealand youths have higher rates of mental illness, abortion, suicide, teen pregnancy and physical injuries than their counterparts in other developed nations. Research has shown that 20 per cent of young people suffer depression while up to 30 per cent have problems with binge drinking.

Each year the centre had about 7000 visits from young people and one indication of its popularity is that it had to turn away up to 10 people every day.

Many of the young people treated at the centre were vulnerable and had limited financial resources as they were at school or in training, on a benefit or working in a low-income job.

Some will struggle to access services such as mental health care and drug or alcohol treatment and counselling. Others who had left school might not be able to afford to see a GP or would not consult one for reasons of confidentiality, or because they believe that GPs operate in a sterile and impersonal environment.

By contrast the centre offers a safe, non-judgmental, youth-focused service and provides a positive support network for its clients.

And although the district health board has talked about a new "youth one-stop shop", there is no guarantee that this will proceed.

A failure by the board and the Government to provide the funding needed by the centre to survive would be remarkably short-sighted. The amount of its financial shortfall would be far out-weighed by the social cost which the closure of it would incur.

There would undoubtedly be more suicides, teen pregnancies, drug use and binge drinking. It is likely also that there would be more crimes and anti-social behaviour associated with drug-taking and drunkenness or committed by some of those who could not get treatment for a mental illness.

As a community, Christchurch has committed itself to dealing with youth problems and it would be contrary to this if the centre, which has been at the forefront of dealing with young people's health issues, including binge drinking, is allowed to close.

But the Government has also made youth issues a priority. It should therefore look favourably on a suggestion from local Opposition MPs that it provide emergency funding to save the health centre and give it time to seek alternative funding.

The Government should be reminded that, in a speech last year to a youth mentoring conference, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said that young people deserved "the deepest love and the strongest support".

This is what the Christchurch's youth health centre has been offering now for a decade and a half and must be allowed to continue to do in the future.

The Press