Community support . . . Jan Andrews, of Timaru's Addictions, Mental Health Peer Support Services (AMPSS 101), hopes the recommendations in the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction report will be put into action. PHOTO: GRETA YEOMAN

by Greta Yeoman

Increasing the support for non-governmental mental health and addictions agencies will be beneficial for the community, AMPSS 101 manager Jan Andrews says.

Concern suicide rate will not fall

Almost 20,000 New Zealanders attempted to take their own lives last year – equivalent to almost half of Timaru’s population.

While recommendations to improve New Zealand’s mental health services are being welcomed by Timaru agencies, a support worker from AMPSS 101 (Addictions, Mental Health Peer Support Services) expressed concern that the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction’s suggestions would do little to reduce the country’s suicide rate.

The woman, who wanted to be known only as Amanda, did not agree with the report’s aim of reducing the country’s suicide rate by 20% by 2030.

“It should be zero.”

But, she added, this would involve huge changes, including breaking the poverty cycle, increasing acceptance, reducing stigma and widening the criteria needed for people to get help.

“The whole of society would need to change.”

The country’s suicide rate reached 668 deaths between July 2017 and June this year.

However, the Ministry of Health estimates close to 20,000 New Zealanders attempt to take their own lives each year, equal to almost half of the estimated 44,000 people in the Timaru district.

The ministry estimations – out of the New Zealand Mental Health Survey – also stated 150,000 people thought about taking their own life last year and 50,000 made a plan to.

Amanda said the pressures on people of all ages were “huge”.

She encouraged people to learn how to have the hard discussions with their friends and look out for the “signs”.

However, some people could have a drop in mood before an attempt, while others could seem really ‘well’ and happy because they felt relieved they had made that decision.

“It is a very hard thing to read,” she said.

“It’s just [about] asking people if they’re OK.”

Mrs Andrews, who heads Timaru’s Addictions, Mental Health Peer Support Services (AMPSS 101) drop-in centre, said she was pleased to see the recommendations in the report on the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, released last week, included further provision for community-based mental health and addiction services.

“[It gives people] easy access, being in the community.”

“We want to take down those barriers.”

Unlike other services that required a doctor’s referral, people could just walk in to AMPSS 101.

“Our goal isn’t always to make people ‘better’, but they are coming in here to maintain their mental health and so we can support them before they reach that crisis.

“We don’t want to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff,” Mrs Andrews said.

She was glad the report recognised people wanted a choice of services, where traditional district health board services were offered alongside strengthened community-based programmes.

She was also pleased to see recommendations including placing people at the centre of their own recovery, as well as promoting collaboration between services and increasing the involvement of family and friends in a client’s care – if the client wanted it.

However, it was now all about putting the report into action, she said.

“We would like to see the changes [happen].”

There was a “good” variety of mental health and addiction services in Timaru, but most people still had to go to Christchurch or Dunedin for any rehabilitation services.

While mental health issues had “historically” been the main reason for people seeking support through AMPSS 101, addiction – particularly to methamphetamine but also cannabis – was now the bigger issue, she said.

Those using drugs were often driven to seek them out because of a crisis in their lives, whether it was in their upbringing or a recent event, she said.

“[It is] a way to dull the issues they are facing.”

She was also pleased to hear the inquiry suggested decriminalising personal drug usage and focusing more on recovery from addiction than jail time.

“[A criminal record] affects them for the rest of their lives.”

The recommendations in the Government’s Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction report will not only affect current service users, but those seeking support, the people supporting them, people working in the sector and the wider community. To reflect this, Greta Yeoman asked what people thought of the report.

  • Anglican Care social justice advocate Ruth Swale

Anglican Care social justice advocate Ruth Swale

There are a “lot of good points” in the report, particularly around expanding access and choice and reforming the Mental Health Act.

Supporting the “missing middle” of people who are struggling mentally but are not deemed unwell enough to meet the criteria for support would be “a huge step forward for so many people who are currently falling between the cracks in this regard”.

One thing missing from the recommendations is the need to upgrade the pay scale for all mental health and addiction support workers.

The aged care sector pay increase, while well deserved, has made it more difficult to recruit and retain mental health and addiction support workers.

“I see this as an urgent step, as their clients need the continuity of working alongside familiar people who they have learnt to trust.”

  • Canterbury Rural Area commander Inspector Dave Gaskin

Canterbury rural area commander Inspector Dave Gaskin.

“No comments in relation to the inquiry nor recommendations.

“But I do agree with the [police] minister” Stuart Nash, who told RNZ last week police officers would not get additional mental health training because he did not want them to become substitutes for mental health professionals.

“The people who deal with those affected with any disorder, whether physical or mental, should be qualified to do so. To be fair to my staff, they have an incredible amount of empathy but are not experts in this field.”

  • New Zealand Association of Counsellors South Canterbury regional representative Christine Macfarlane

Christine Macfarlane

“It is a thorough and positive report from the inquiry.”

The association “is supportive” of establishing a mental health and wellbeing commission and increasing access for people to get support, in particular therapy, through a variety of ways.

But the NZAC urges the Government to address an “urgent need” by increasing funding for more school guidance counsellors.

“We acknowledge there is much for the Government to digest. However, there are issues that can, and should, be addressed now.”

The association is also glad to see social determinants of wellbeing playing a key role in the report, such as housing, employment, poverty, family violence and sexual abuse, all things that “significantly impact people’s mental health and wellbeing”.

No omissions in the report “come to mind” but the association does have concerns about the length of time before the Government will formally respond to the 10 recommendations, in March.

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