Mental health dream

Government Inquiry into Mental Health could look like this

This is my recent column in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

The year is 2030.

All of the recommendations of what came to be known as the “Paterson Report” into mental health and addictions have been implemented.

There is now a Minister for Mental Health. And the Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission oversees a national set of services that have enabled, over time, our suicide rate to drop – exceeding the 20 per cent target of 2018.

There are no waitlists for treatment. No shortages of peer support workers, counsellors, psychotherapists or psychologists: a decade-long workforce plan has trained more and more people, with the promise of ample work in the national mental health service. And it’s a service funded to provide treatment to up to 20 per cent of the population, although the number of people experiencing severe psychological distress has, for the first time in many years, started to decrease.

When people experience distress it’s as easy as walking into your GP’s office and talking with the counsellor or peer support worker that every practice is required to have. For most people, a couple of free sessions with this person is enough.

For those who need more, they can be referred on to a specialist therapist and, if required, a doctor who can talk about medication and other treatment options.

For people in acute distress, or highly suicidal, hospital is used very sparingly, if at all.

We no longer put people in isolation, or seclusion. Instead, community-based respite and safe houses, staffed by teams of professionals and peer support staff take the time to build trust, escalate distress and work with people – and their families – in their own communities.

Cannabis is legal, but highly regulated, and all other drugs are decriminalised. Alcohol advertising has been significantly curtailed. Government restrictions on the number of liquor stores, as well as the location and number of cannabis dispensaries are strictly enforced, as are age limits on both.

Addiction treatment is easily accessible through the same services as mental health help, and front line clinicians are trained in both. Drugs such as opiates and stimulants are available on prescription and can be safely prescribed by a trained professional, with resources available for people if and when they want to stop.

Our prison population has sharply decreased. The police are no longer involved in drug crime, leaving them free to focus on other, more serious crimes.

Schools teach emotional wellbeing as a core part of the curriculum, at all year levels. There are counsellors in every school, and a nationwide peer support programme in high schools. Students are trained to help and support each other, with support from the school counsellors.

A new generation continues to challenge and change the Kiwi “harden up” culture. Emotional health is increasingly part of every day conversations and the All Blacks are fronting a campaign encouraging people to “open up to your mates”.

While many social problems remain, globally, other countries have started to adopt Universal Basic Incomes, a move that we are now considering to further help those being left behind by the technological revolution.

Back to 2018…

Am I dreaming? No. If every one of the 40 recommendations of “He Ara Oranga” were fully implemented, this is a believable future.

But can we afford to dream? That remains to be seen. But I, for one, refuse to lose hope. It may be a dream, but it is one I refuse to give up on.

And the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addictions Review released this week just brought this future closer.

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