It’s been a mantra of the opponents of the previous Government’s mental health inaction policy that demand and need for mental health services has been growing exponentially in recent years, and this week at a Waikato DHB meeting I saw absolute evidence of the issue when we were presented with figures showing massive increases in two key statistics highlighting the cutting edge.
Firstly, Waikato Hospital Emergency Dept presentations for severe mental illness reasons had grown from an average of about 40 per month in 2013 and 2014 to over 160 in January 2018 – a 400% increase.
Secondly, emergency contacts with the region’s mental health crisis services had grown from an average of about 170 per month in 2013 and 2014, to 520 in January 2018 – a 300% increase.
In both cases, a sharp, almost immediate increase in these awful statistics occurred between late 2014 and mid 2015, “with no additional resources to respond to that need,” according to Vicki Aitken, the DHB’s Director of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
When questioned at the Board Committee meeting, the Clinical Director of these services, one Rees Tapsell, made two interesting comments; he claimed all public mental health services in New Zealand ‘were facing the same pressure’, and that several other areas of the DHB’s work were ‘under almost the same pressure’.
Tapsell was unable to say why these truly astounding statistics, or the more general issue of lack of resources, hadn’t led to the Government and the DHBs providing more resources to meet the community needs.
He did agree that there was a significant ‘workforce planning’ deficit in the mental health sector, and that qualified staff were difficult to come by, and hard to keep hold of – in part due to the attractiveness of the significantly higher salaries in the public mental health sector in Australia.
Also discussed was the effect on the workers in the mental health services, with Aitken’s report stating “While all areas of our service are under significant stress, some areas are now having staff whom are visibly distressed by the workload and the limited ability to respond to referrals. This is particularly true in the Infant, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Team.”
Shockingly, this sort of information would have been known for some time by senior hospital managers, clinicians and – I believe Board members, Ministry of Health officials and the Minister himself, if not in complete detail, at least in terms of the trends and overall state of affairs – yet we’ve have officials at our DHB, other DHB’s, the Ministry and the sector generally all following the Minister’s lead and denying the problem was out of hand; something the same crowd have also obviously been doing in relation to the shit-filled walls at Middlemore Hospital.
Not only are these mental health statistics painting a grim picture, but they are being reinforced by the police receiving over 50,000 urgent calls each year relating to mental health episodes, and emergency services like ambulance staff and fire staff now needing training in dealing with mental health issues on their callouts.
The official response to this foreseeable crisis has been pathetic – a combination of denial and claims that the problems were under control. While former Minister Jonathan ‘Dr Death’ Coleman has now scarpered from Parliament (good riddance), the new Labour Minister of Health David Clark clearly has a hell of a lot of work yet to do to convince us that the mental health crisis is being properly dealt with.
We wait with bated breath.
David Macpherson is TDB’s mental health blogger. He became involved in mental health rights after the mental health system allowed his son to die. He is now a Waikato DHB Member.