Fixing youth mental health is going to take more than money

by Aaron Hendry / 20 September, 2018
Opinion.
Illustration: Getty Images

Illustration: Getty Images

You can throw money at the system all you want, but until our youth mental health services are designed in a way that puts rangatahi at the centre they will continue to fail, writes Aaron Hendry.

"We’re worried about him, he’s saying he is going to kill himself.”

The young person’s teacher had called me in to help. He didn’t know what to do, and what the young person had just said...terrified him.

As the only youth worker in the school that day, he’d dragged me away from another appointment to “fix him”.

Walking into that room my mind was buzzing. I knew I’d need to make a referral to mental health services. I knew there was a chance this rangatahi would be needing immediate assistance.

I also knew it was unlikely that he would get it.

As I sat with this young man, my suspicions were confirmed. He presented as an imminent risk of suicide. I spent the rest of the day trying to get him an appointment with our DHB mental health services. It was like fighting an uphill battle. I honestly believe that if this rangatahi had not had an advocate he would not have gotten the assistance he needed.

Imagine if there hadn’t been a Youth Worker at the school that day. The staff at this school did not have the resources, time or knowledge needed in order to advocate for him. He could have so easily become another of our statistics.

When our rangatahi need help, they need it now.

They shouldn’t need to have someone to advocate on their behalf in order to convince mental health services that their need is genuine.

Our youth mental health services aren’t working. That much is obvious.

In a recent article, Newshub highlighted statistics from the Ministry of Health that revealed the ridiculous wait times for rangatahi seeking help from youth mental health services. These stats showed that in some cases young people are waiting for help anywhere from three weeks to two months, before receiving the assistance that they so desperately need.

Unfortunately, this information isn’t surprising.

During my career as a Youth Worker, I've found that getting youth engaged with mental health services when they are in need of them, is one of the hardest tasks that come with the job.

It’s true that our DHB mental health services are underfunded, understaffed, and under-resourced. But, as Jeanne O'Brien from Tararua Community Youth Services pointed out in a recent interview with the Herald, there's more going on here than lack of funding.

Many of our DHB-funded mental health services are not designed in a way that makes them accessible for rangatahi.

And in many cases, they are unfit and unable to deal with some of our most vulnerable and disengaged youth.

The system just isn’t working for our young people.

You can throw money at the system all you want, but until our youth mental health services are designed in a way that puts rangatahi at the centre, that honours their voice, and engages with them in a way that makes them feel comfortable, and in a manner that works for them, then they will continue to fail.

I believe we need a complete overhaul of the system. We need to design a system which holds up the principles of Youth Development, a system which takes seriously the voice of rangatahi in the design process, a system which is designed with young people and for young people.

Our rangatahi know what they need when they ask for help. Our communities have the answers to access their own healing.

As Chloe Swarbrick said in the Newshub report, if we are going to make a difference in shifting this epidemic of mental illness in this country, we need to fund successful services which are already working.

These services are, more often than not, found in local communities. They are run by local people, just trying to do what little they can, with the very little they have.

The Government’s inquiry into mental health services is a start. But, while we wait for advice from the inquiry to be implemented, our rangatahi are at risk.

We cannot afford to wait any longer.

The lives of our rangatahi are at risk. We need to go back to our communities. We need to talk with the community about what they need, in order to support their people.

That is where we will find the answers.

That is where we need to start.

*Aaron Hendry is a youth development worker in Auckland, where he lives with his wife and newborn son. A theology graduate of Laidlaw College, he writes about the intersection of theology and social justice  at whenlambsaresilent.wordpress.com / facebook.com/whenlambsaresilent

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