In late May, New Zealand announced its budget for the next few years of the Labour government. For the first time, there was a “Wellbeing Budget” announced, a part which looks specifically into the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders. This is an incredible first step in making changes to the way mental health issues are viewed in the country, although there are many steps to be made in the way that these issues are discussed in the everyday lives of New Zealanders, and around the world.
The primary reason that this budget was created to “take mental health seriously,” as it states. This has included a new $455m programme aiming to provide access to mental health services for 325,000 people, an increase in suicide prevention services, and an outreach to more secondary school students. Improving overall mental health and wellbeing is the primary goal, but other areas are being tackled as a means of improving this. There is an increased effort in putting an end to homelessness, improving child wellbeing, and supporting Maori and Pasifika people specifically. Many of these areas have been neglected by previous governments, resulting in a decline of successful wellbeing. Mental health services is something that has been severely lacking in sufficient attention and funding, and rates of depression and suicide within New Zealand are disproportionately high. The country has the highest number of teen suicides in the OECD, and numbers of deaths by suicide across all age ranges have been steadily increasing over the last four years. In 2018, the total number was 668, increasing by 62 since 2017, according to the Chief Coroner. From this, Maori and Pasifika people are higher than NZ Europeans, and men being double than the number of women. However, numbers are not being consistently updated throughout 2019, as there are now indicators being developed that will more accurately measure the different needs of New Zealanders in regards to wellbeing. With New Zealand’s statistics and high number of deaths, it is vital that this budget makes significant changes to the way the country helps people suffering with mental health issues.
In New Zealand, and many other Western countries, people within the society have a limited understanding of what it means to explain and be able to help with mental health issues, as further discussed in the budget. The way our mental health is currently viewed is that it is the responsibility of the individual, and that any struggles with mental health are therefore our own fault. Self-care is promoted as small luxuries such as having a bubble bath, instead of serious issues that will delve into why the self-care is needed. This budget should help encourage these types of care, such as going through counselling and therapy. Part of this issue is that only people with the highest needs are able to receive support, as discussed in the budget. This is often limited to people who are an immediate danger to themselves. However, even demand for these services are becoming increasingly high, and the numbers of people in need are highly outnumbering the number of services available. While these people in high need are struggling to get adequate help, the people with less severe mental health issues are being largely left on their own. This is coming at a huge cost to their friends and families who are trying to support them, both financially and emotionally. The budget is now recognizing and discussing these issues, in the hopes that funding will make these services more accessible, and mean that help can be obtained.
There is also acknowledgement within the budget announcement that the country has previously focused primarily on the economy, and that by doing this, countless people of different classes and class backgrounds are being excluded from the community. Accessibility to therapy is one of the largest issues faced by people in New Zealand, as it is often incredibly expensive. Many secondary schools and universities do offer these services for free, but in a way that is very limited. Often there is not enough staff to meet demand, and many studies have been done from students, particularly within universities, that feel that staff are insufficient in terms of dealing with the wide range of issues being faced. Some of these include a lack of understanding of LGBTQ+ issues, a lack of representation for Maori and Pasifika, and little ability for speciality focus into things that do not fall under the generalised ideas of depression and anxiety. Funding will mean that there can be an increase in the staff that are brought into schools and universities, and therefore, a wider range of students that these services are able to reach. In an emergency, crisis calls to police can be used. A plan by the New Zealand government was recently scrapped, which brought up the possibility of having trained medical professionals alongside police during these emergency call outs. Since the Christchurch terror attacks, this idea is being further discussed, but there is no guarantee that this could happen. Alongside the rest of the budget, this could be an important step into saving lives at the last moment.
Although the changes brought in by the budget are important, there are still a lot of aspects that New Zealand is lacking in with the way the society views and supports people suffering with mental health issues. The types of “self care” that we promote can, and does, help with basic forms of increasing happiness, but this sort of care is not a cure for more serious mental health issues. Instead, it can help with having a bad day, something that everyone experiences, or feelings such as stress and sadness. Anxiety and depression are diseases that are different to this, and are not going to be cured instantaneously. While the new Wellbeing Budget is a vital first step to making a change to the way New Zealanders support mental health, there is still significant change needing to be made in the way we discuss and understand these diseases. In New Zealand, it is the suicide rates that are significantly higher than other countries in the OECD, particularly for young people, as discussed earlier. Suicide often comes from a person being put in a situation where they feel there is no other option. Opening up a dialogue, and helping young people see the options that are available to help them, is necessary to ensuring these lives are saved. Instead, it is something that our neoliberalist, “do it yourself” type of society currently does not encourage.
The steps New Zealand has taken by creating this wellbeing budget is an important recognition of the struggles that New Zealanders are facing, and the importance of looking after our mental health. However, while it is important that the government are making these changes, the budget on its own will not be able to change the way everyday people hold conversations around the topic. This is something that has to be encouraged to change through discussion and a more educated understanding.
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