Less than two years ago, mainstream media in this country did their best to avoid criticising the Government or any of its Ministers over the issue of mental health and how our health system was handling it.
The most that you might usually see would be the report of an individual family’s horror story, with no analysis of how a failing, or failed, system contributed to that.
Then there would be the odd Coroner’s inquest reported, with a toothless Coroner coming out with a couple of ‘recommendations’ which would be regularly either ignored or openly flouted by health authorities.
And a puff piece or two planted in the media about a celebrity who had been signed by a Government Department’s advertising agency to be the poster child for a mental health public awareness campaign.
In my estimation, things are changing quite quickly on the media front; while the Coroners are still hidebound and toothless, and some celebrities are still being wheeled out for the poster campaigns, both the mainstream media and the bloggers and other social media have spotted the breach in the health system’s dyke, and are pouring through the hole, flooding the landscape with connected reports of mental health tragedies and mismanagement, and analysis of what has gone wrong, where it is happening, who is responsible and what needs doing about it.
A series of mental health disasters, where victim families refused to go quietly, some good public work by a number of groups, plus a growing number of rebellious celebrities refusing to be used by the Government as cannon fodder has caused the mainstream media to take up the issue in a more serious way.
Mike King’s dumping of the Government’s Suicide Prevention Strategy sham exercise; an OECD Report showing the New Zealand continued to have the worst youth suicide statistics; calls by former Children’s Commissioner Ian Hassall, former Mental Health Foundation Director Prof Max Abbott AND by Judge Ken Mason, the architect of the 20-year old ‘Mason Report’, for the Government to hold a full inquiry into the mental health system – all caught attention.
Granny Herald has produced a month-long series ‘Breaking the Silence’, containing some very good material and analysis about suicide and mental health issues generally, many of the pieces written by Olivia Carville. The Stuff stable has scrambled to match this with its own regular coverage of similar stories.
One such news article last week was quite revealing: “Treasury found Minister of Health’s mental health strategy not ‘coherent’ two months before budget.” As a headline, seven weeks out from an election and coupled with a photo of Health Minister Jonathan Coleman looking more like a dork than usual, you wouldn’t see many more damning of a Government than that. Had Jacinda Ardern not burst on the scene the day before (convenient timing of course) it would have created a greater splash.
Treasury officials, those normally dry economists, said in a report that they knew would eventually be released publicly, that the Ministry of Health had ‘failed to deliver an effective mental health strategy’. They pushed Finance Minister Steven Joyce to shelve Coleman’s strategy only two months ahead of the recent Budget, and one can imagine that Joyce was required to put his National Campaign Manager hat on as he resisted Treasury’s call.
Treasury attacked the Ministry and Minister’s failure to put forward a coherent mental health bid, saying it was developed “without an understanding of the mental health population, workforce and interventions across the social sector.”
“We don’t have confidence that the ministry will develop an effective mental health strategy in the specified timeframes, if at all.”
The Government was advised to “push for the establishment of a genuine cross-agency mental health strategy rather than assuming the model that the Minister of Health has proposed.
One of the many problems for National in this area is that they have a lazy, weak Minister in Coleman – who they would dump in a flash had not the election been looming. He is a walking magnet for all manner of health disaster stories, and almost never fronts to media to explain himself or his attempted solutions.
John Campbell stated openly on RNZ Checkpoint last week that Coleman was one of only two Ministers that had neverfronted his programme, and another experienced journo told me that he was the only Minister they had never been able to speak to directly.
Coleman relies on his media flunkies to speak for him – and they have produced a flurry of releases in the last three months that matches the total output for the preceding three years. And he relies for his ‘health advice’ on a dysfunctional Ministry, led by a bean counter whose abacus seems regularly to let him down, and a Director of Mental Health whose main job is telling ‘Emperor Coleman’ that he is indeed fully clothed.
Coleman is not equipped or experienced enough to tell the difference between spin and fact, and is regularly caught out by mental and other health horror stories that Blind Freddy could see coming up in the lift.
Watch this space, because regardless of whether or not the Nats win the election, I’m betting that Coleman will be dumped from the health portfolio – perhaps being given Customs and Racing (if Winston doesn’t want that). And the mainstream media will be rejoicing.
Dave Macpherson is TDB’s mental health blogger. He became a Waikato DHB member after his son died from mental health incompetence.