In a re-run of the 1980’s ‘Yes Minister’ sitcom, Ministry of Health humphreys have absorbed like a sponge the community and Government messages about the urgent need for ‘transformational’ action on mental health, and are busy working out ways to head off any ‘transformation’ of their power and influence.
This week the Ministry produced – not for public consumption of course – its ‘Every Life Matters Suicide Prevention Strategy’, an in-house document for which they failed to seek the promised input from bereaved families and the wider community.
You might remember two years ago, when the Nats were in power, the Ministry copped a lot of flack for its previous version of this report, including a weak-as-dishwater set of suicide prevention targets. It was so bad that celebrity mental health advocate Mike King resigned in disgust from the Ministry reference group set up to rubber-stamp the strategy.
Then, after several delays, the new Government’s Mental Health Inquiry Panel came up with a 20% suicide reduction target suggestion, after input from its Ministry advisers. That would have taken us from the worst suicide rate in the world to perhaps the second or third-worst. Woop-de-doo!
To give them credit, the Government (after direct intervention from Jacinda Ardern) rejected the 20% suicide reduction recommendation, saying we should be setting our sights a damn sight higher. So the Ministry got back to work refining its in-house strategy.
As mental health campaigners got wind of this behind-the-scenes work in the Ministry, they harassed the official in charge to give them the right to have input into the strategy and the document. Despite this bureaucrat’s promise, no such opportunity arose, and the Ministry has now produced a document that calls for “working together” to deal with the awful problem of suicide, but has missed the “together” part altogether.
In an open letter to the Ministry of Health, three suicide-bereaved mothers – Corinda Taylor, Maria Dillon, and my partner Jane Stevens – told this official that “the Ministry of Health is not delivering on this [suicide prevention] vision by excluding some of the most important voices from the conversation.”
They further said “Our voices are important; we have all made the very brave decision to talk openly about our sons’ deaths and our grief, and we are actively working for change in the area of Mental Health Care and Suicide Awareness and Prevention. Can you appreciate how hard it is for us, to keep pushing through the silence and the pain of grief and keep moving forward?”
The exclusion of these mothers, and many other families, from strategy and planning work in the suicide awareness and prevention space, was par for the course under the previous National Government.
Many hoped that it would be different under the Labour/Green/NZ First Government, especially given their strong official focus on mental health issues. Sadly, or perhaps inevitably, its only taken 20 months for the Humphreys in the Ministry to reassert their control and shut out those most affected, and with perhaps the most to offer.
The Humphreys in charge of mental health services include the Director of Mental Health, John Crawshaw, and his Deputy Director, Ian Soosay – a pair of Napoleon-sized gentlemen who have clearly made up in bureaucratic cunning what they lack in size.
Their biggest support has come from the unfortunate Dr David Clark – allegedly Minister of Health (don’t be fooled by the “Dr” – its of Divinity), who initially showed a spark of independence when he ‘exited’ the former bean counter top boss of the Ministry shortly after the election, but is now scrupulously ‘following instructions’ to keep community involvement in sorting out our mental health issues to a bare minimum.
And it hasn’t just been this particular suicide awareness document where the Humphreys and their allies in the mental health profession have been excluding affected families and communities – our own work in the Waikato region, and that of others in many other parts of the country, has shown how hard they will work to say nice things to your face, while ensuring it is ‘business as usual’ behind the façade.
The lesson from this disappointment is that, just as under National, the community – if they really want change in the mental health and suicide awareness space – is going to have to continue to organise and to fight for it.
Dave Macpherson – TDB mental health blogger & Former Waikato DHB Elected Member