Lizzie Marvelly: Gambling with lives is not on

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People of Christchurch deserve better than cuts to mental health funding.
Post-earthquake Christchurch is, understandably, struggling. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Post-earthquake Christchurch is, understandably, struggling. Photo / Geoff Sloan

When I was diagnosed with depression in 2009, I had no idea it would take a year of antidepressants and three years of therapy for me to turn my life around. No one plans for these things to happen, so mental illness often has the advantage of surprise. You're doing okay one minute, and the next your whole life has fallen through the floor. Quite literally, if you live in Christchurch.

When depression ripped through my life like a tornado, I needed help. I'd hate to think what might have happened if I'd not been able to access the support I needed. I was immensely lucky my family could afford to pay for my weekly sessions with an excellent psychologist. Many others are not so fortunate.

When I read about the recently revealed slashes to Christchurch's mental health funding, I was incensed. I wondered whether the decision makers had ever had a mental illness themselves, or watched a loved one bravely soldier through an exhausting, uphill battle against an enemy that resides inside their own head.

Surely they must be ignorant of the experience of mental illness, I thought, to make such a reckless, negligent and potentially devastating decision.

But their ignorance is unlikely. Here in New Zealand, mental illness will affect one in six of us at some stage of our lives. Sitting in a crowded cafe reading this over brunch? Look around you. It's highly likely that someone in close proximity has faced a mental health battle of their own.

The situation in Christchurch is bleaker. In April last year, mental health services in Christchurch reported a 43 per cent increase in adults seeking the help of mental health services, and a 69 per cent increase in children and youth seeking mental health help. The number of youth seeking help would be higher without the support of the Canterbury District Health Board's schools programme. Post-earthquake Christchurch, quite simply, and understandably, is struggling.

The Ministry of Health knows this, and yet on Tuesday, just two days after a shallow, sharp 5.7 quake rattled houses and nerves once again in the beleaguered city, it was revealed the ministry would slash funding to Canterbury's community mental health services and trauma counselling, and reduce mental health funding allocations to the CDHB. That's despite CDHB bosses' warnings that the system is already "close to imploding".

I'm not quite sure the cliche "a kick in the teeth" adequately reflects the situation. It is more like the Ministry of Health has delivered a swift kick in the guts to a city that is already bleeding on the floor.

I'm not implying for a second that Cantabrians are weak; they're just the opposite. They're a bunch of extraordinarily tough Kiwis who have had to be strong for far too long without adequate support.

The Government's move to cut funding is both morally repellent and financially imprudent. Untreated mental illness is hugely economically draining. Studies have shown that the estimated rate of employment for people with mental illnesses in New Zealand is under half that of the general population. The cost to businesses is also huge, with mental illness contributing significantly to absenteeism, low staff morale and lost productivity. Slashed funding to trauma services may also result in unresolved minor mental health issues causing greater damage and requiring more intensive public health interventions, such as hospitalisation.

Whatever the financial consequences, the inevitable human result of these funding cuts is that people who need help won't get it. Numerous studies show that people with low incomes - the public health system often their only healthcare option - are more likely to be affected by mental illness. Studies have also shown that the prevalence of mental illness increases sharply in the years following a disaster.

With the public services stretched to breaking point, overloaded and under-funded, cases will likely have to be prioritised, or the standard of care compromised. How else can the system cope? And how exactly are already overworked mental health professionals supposed to choose which patient receives care, and which is condemned to continue suffering from a potentially fatal illness until they can be seen?

Although it is widespread, mental illness is not like a common cold. It won't resolve with a few packets of Panadol and lots of fluids. Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, substance addiction, eating disorders and the many other mental illnesses that affect Kiwis require treatment, from psychotherapy to strengthening social support systems to medication, and everything in between.

No one can truly understand what it's like to be mentally ill without experiencing it, but here's a start:

When I was in the grips of major depressive disorder, I would quite literally hide in my wardrobe. I'd crawl in there, curl up into a ball, and cry. I'd sleep until 4pm and wake up exhausted; I hated myself, and blamed myself. Frankly, it sucked.

You can no more snap out of having a mental illness than you could snap out of having diabetes. It's like an alien force that takes up residence in your head. Like diabetes, however, mental illness is treatable, and clinical interventions can save lives.

Mental health services saved mine, something I am grateful for every day. I went on to complete a degree in psychology, and it is that knowledge, combined with my own experiences, that tell me that the Government's move to slash funding to services for those who need help is deeply wrong.

Gambling with people's lives by cutting their access to support is a ploy that can never be justified by economic savings. What price do you place on a life lost to suicide?

The people of Christchurch deserve better.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youth services: (06) 3555 906 (Palmerston North and Levin)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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- NZ Herald

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