Cutting through the political spin on mental health


Through the Maze – Our Mental Health Journey

OPINION: The Dominion Post file for the infamous Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital, near Palmerston North, is sitting on my desk.

It’s quite possibly one of the most complete records in New Zealand of the atrocities and outmoded forms of practise that occurred there. It makes for horrifying reading.

The Evening Post Headline from June 27, 1983 reads with fanfare: “High Security For Criminally Insane”.

“Patients in the most lavishly equipped and most expensive psychiatric unit in New Zealand need not waste their time or energy thinking about getting out,” the story starts. “It would take more than a few knotted sheets slung together to drop out of the maximum security villa of Lake Alice Psychiatric Hospital.”

On January 28, 1991 the Evening Post ran the following headline: “Hangings prompt changes at Lake Alice”.

“Windows at Lake Alice Hospital’s national secure unit are being modified after an investigation into a suicide two months ago, the second suicide in a year,” it read. “Patients had been able to hang themselves by looping bed or linen through the grille on the windows.”

The remains of the former Lake Alice Hospital, which closed in 1999. the stories which came out of the hospital were ...

The remains of the former Lake Alice Hospital, which closed in 1999. the stories which came out of the hospital were horrifying.

Every headline in that file is deserving, and tells the history of a sad era in New Zealand psychiatric care that began with fanfare and ended an embarrassing mess that Governments at the time tried to close the lid on, while the families dealt with the ruins of a shameful legacy of abuse, torture and sub-standard care.  

New Zealand’s mental health services have thankfully come a long way since then, due to the work of a number of experts, carers and professionals dedicated to the care of people in a vulnerable mental state.

Many, like Ministry of Health director of mental health John Crawshaw, and even Health Minister Jonathan Coleman, began their careers in that era and in similar institutions. Many railed against institutionalisation as an effective form of treatment from the start – they were pioneers, and New Zealand is lucky to have the level of expertise that it has currently in its service.

Newspaper headlines from 1995, ahead of the last major review into mental health.


Newspaper headlines from 1995, ahead of the last major review into mental health.

It pays to remember that, when reading the latest headline about an “escaped mental patient”, hospital failings in care or stubbornly static suicide statistics. The news, by definition, will always highlight the cases gone wrong. That’s as it should be – substandard care should never go unchecked. 

But in my years as a health reporter, and more recently as a political health reporter, I’ve grown wary of political views framing the debate on what’s needed to fix the mental health system. And as we careen toward a General Election – you should too. 

There are things that are known to be true of the mental health system. It’s under strain – that’s undebatable. Over the past decade demand for secondary mental health and addiction services had risen from 2.3 percent of the population to 3.6 percent – an increase from 96,000 people to almost 168,000 people. 

Increase in demand for mental health services.

Jemma Cheer Design

Increase in demand for mental health services.

New Zealand’s suicide rates – in particular youth suicide rates – are far too high. From July 1, 2014 to June 30, this year, there were 238 suicides among New Zealanders aged 12-24. We have one of the highest youth suicide mortality rates in the OECD.

And there are claims that of course have strong elements of truth, but are predicated on party political policy designed to undermine the opposing side. 

Will an inquiry into the mental health system help? Labour are campaigning on one. It couldn’t hurt right? But it’s not a solution in and of itself. It’s also not a guarantee that a solution would be found. Although it could be. 

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman has said there is no need for a mental health review.


Health Minister Jonathan Coleman has said there is no need for a mental health review.

Conversely, Coleman has said an inquiry is a waste of money, because the problems are already known and the Government is working on fixing them. So when will it look like they’re getting on top of things?  

Opposition parties make much of health underfunding by the Government. What’s true is the two sides prioritise spending differently in health, so direct spending comparisons can only factually go so far.

A reader may well agree the Government’s underfunded the health system based on the spending track of the last Labour Government. The notion follows that they would vote accordingly. 

Labour are right that not enough money has been put in the health system, though that argument always will be – there will never be “enough” money though there certainly has to be a limit.

National are right when they say they’ve pumped more into health than any party that’s gone before them, but given the pressures and demands in health, more will always be spent each year. 

One thing we can all agree on, is precious health funding should not be spent wastefully and there could always be more. 

Politicians are about to get a whole lot more air time in the coming weeks. Their views will become near inescapable and voters should listen. They will be making the changes after all, but they are advised by the experts and it pays to listen to them first. 

This week, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman released an important document – a discussion paper on the best ways forward to reduce the youth suicide rate. 

Building resilience in children, to deal with known changes in modern family structures, technology and social networks, media, celebrities and other social factors that were combining to create “unrealistic expectations and pressures on young people”, was the prescription, with a specific focus on programmes in primary schools. 

To reduce the number of people needing mental health support, we needed to ensure they were equipped at childhood with the ability to navigate through stress to live healthy and happy lives as adults. 

So to cut through the political spin, the next question one might ask is: “How have the two political sides responded?” They may have accepted it, or disregarded it completely. 

A voter might think the politician’s differing view to the experts is still the right one, and that’s fine. But as we near the election, and the mental health system becomes more politicised, there is only one question that matters. 

How will any of this help the people who need it? 

Reporters Katie Kenny and Laura Walters spent six months travelling the country, interviewing those whose lives have intertwined with mental health services, and investigating what needs to change. The result was Through the Maze: Our mental health journey, a project funded by the Frozen Funds Charitable Trust, through the Mental Health Foundation. Explore their full report here.


Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757

Healthline (open 24/7) – 0800 611 116

Samaritans (open 24/7) – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email

0800 WHATSUP children’s helpline – phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at

Kidsline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.

Your local Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.

For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).

 – Stuff