Why more money won’t fix our youth mental health services

If our adult mental health system needs to be restructured, our youth mental health system needs to be completely obliterated and rebuilt from the ground up.

This content discusses suicide and may be triggering for some people, if you need help please see a list of helplines at the bottom of this article

I’ve been a youth development worker for almost 10 years, and sitting in that room was one of the most suffocating experiences of my life.

The school counsellor opposite me was almost in tears as he struggled to come to grips with the news I’d just delivered to him. I myself struggled to fight back the rage building in me.

On Friday morning we’d met in this very room and identified a young person whom we both believed was at risk of suicide. On Friday afternoon we met with him and he opened up about his feelings of suicide and explained in detail how he planned to kill himself. On Friday evening he was taken into the Youth Mental Health Services for an assessment.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, just hours after his parents had been told by the youth mental health service that he was “safe” and “not an imminent risk of suicide”, this young man attempted to kill himself.

He failed.

Thank God, he failed.

But, once again we’d come to close to losing another. Once again death had only narrowly been avoided.

After a suicide, people always ask “what could we have done?” “Why didn’t he reach out?” “How can we get people to open up about this stuff?”

This young man did.

He told us he was feeling suicidal. He told us he would make an attempt. That information was passed on to the relevant service set up to deal with such crises. Everything was done by the book.

Yet, even with all the information, even with the parents notifying the mental health services of their concerns, even with the young person explicitly telling us he was feeling unsafe and had plans to kill himself, he was turned away without the appropriate care and support.

Sitting in that school counselor’s office, watching this grown man struggle to hold back tears, I was struck with an overwhelming feeling of defeat. Plagued by the thought that we were fighting this battle alone.

I had done my job. The counselor in front of me had done his. We are told over and over again, “if you are concerned, refer.” “If a rangatahi reveals plans to kill himself, refer.” “You are not mental health professionals, connect your young people to those who are.”

But once again, even after following the process, our mental health service had let us down.

Perhaps you think I am being a bit harsh. People make mistakes; surely we can’t expect them to get it right all the time?

What if I told you that this wasn’t an isolated experience? What if I told you that I have known rangatahi who have literally had ropes around their necks, yet been told that they weren’t at risk enough to be accepted into mental health services?

I have had rangatahi who have begged me to lock them up, afraid that if they were left to themselves that they would be at risk, not only to themselves but to others as well. Only to get them in front of the psychiatrist and have them downplay the rangatahi’s experience and deny that the young person was at-risk enough to be put under surveillance.

Something is fundamentally broken with the youth mental health services in this country. Throwing money at this problem isn’t going to fix it.

To be clear, this is not an attack on mental health workers. Mental health workers are fighting an uphill battle, working in a system which is sadly working against them. No, this is a critique of the system. A system which is not just woefully underfunded, but one which is also sadly lacking in its design.

We are in desperate need of an overhaul.

For starters our rangatahi deserve services that take them seriously. Services that reflect their needs and are delivered in a way that makes them feel comfortable and cared for.

Rangatahi need to be given the choice to engage with services on their terms, in the environments where they feel comfortable, rather than being dragged to some sterile hospital-like building where they are met by professionals who, through no fault of their own, have not been given adequate training on how to engage with vulnerable young people.

We need services that understand the spiritual, physical, social and mental needs of our young people. So that when we do get our rangatahi engaged, they are given solutions which take into account their overall hauora, rather than simply providing them with a pill and sending them on their way.

We can do better Aotearoa. And what’s more, we need to do better.

I commend the government on their willingness to act on this issue. But, we need more than willingness.

Our rangatahi are dying.

We need action.

And we need it yesterday.

Where to get help

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland.

Samaritans – 0800 726 666.

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). Open 24/7

Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202. This service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Healthline – 0800 611 116

Counselling for children and young people

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat. Open 24/7.

thelowdown.co.nz – or email team@thelowdown.co.nz or free text 5626

What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.

Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.

For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email info@mentalhealth.org.nz


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