We continue a series on election issues. This week Angela Woods looks at mental health.

Pressure on the mental health system has been increasing over the past few years, with advocates saying it has reached crisis point.

Yeswecare.nz co-ordinator Simon Oosterman said services were inadequate not just in Rotorua but across the country.

"When you have struggling families going to hospital and being told there's no help for them, that is a crisis.

"Hospital services are overwhelmed looking for mental health services that don't exist."

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In the Lakes District Health Board area, 17 people committed suicide in the past year, a rate of 16.6 per 100,000 - a higher rate than the national average of 12.64.

Since 2007/8, 172 people in the Lakes area have died by suicide.

Men, Maori and those aged 18-24 have the highest suicide rates throughout the country.

A recent event on the Rotorua lakefront using pairs of shoes to represent the number of people lost to suicide was a major success, Mr Oosterman said.

"We need to ensure we empower bereaved families to be at the forefront of change. The Rotorua event was a really good example of that."

There has been a 60 per cent increase in demand on services nationally - an extra 96,000 people accessing secondary mental health services in the past 10 years.

Funding has increased by less than 30 per cent over the same period - from $1.1 billion in 2008/9 to $1.4b for 2015/6.

Just 60 per cent of people under 19 referred to mental health services - and classified as non-urgent - were seen within three weeks at Lakes DHB in 2015/16.

Rotokawa School principal and Rotorua Principals' Association president Briar Stewart said more help was needed in schools.

"Probably 20 per cent of your roll would be children who need some kind of support. It is enough to put pressure on teachers.

"The number of students coming through with a wide variety of needs has definitely increased."

Rotokawa School principal Briar Stewart and Rotorua Principals' Association president Briar Stewart. Photo/File
Rotokawa School principal Briar Stewart and Rotorua Principals' Association president Briar Stewart. Photo/File

Counsellors and social workers in schools were required, she said, to take that pressure off teachers.

"We already do cover a lot of social work-type things."

The Government has launched a number of new initiatives and announced $224 million more in funding in the run-up to the election, but this would be distributed over four years.

Some of this money would come from within District Health Board budgets and would not be new funding.

Comedian and mental health advocate Mike King told NZME after the announcement this was like "reshuffling deck chairs on the Titanic".

Mr Oosterman said the budget announcement amounted to very little.

"They were only offering an $18m increase in new mental health funding. Per person, funding is actually dropping.

"Services aren't closing but people are waiting longer and longer. We're hearing more and more stories of people falling through the cracks."

Some District Health Boards, Canterbury in particular, had significantly longer waiting times.

"I don't blame the District Health Boards," Mr Oosterman said.

"District Health Boards have to make really hard decisions about their funding."

In 2016/7, 606 New Zealanders committed suicide - the third year in a row the figure has increased.

The population has risen with the number of suicides, meaning the actual suicide rate was not greatly changed.

The national suicide rate was 12.64 per 100,000 people, only slightly higher than last year's 12.33.

The rate remained higher than most in the OECD, however, particularly for those aged 20-24.

The Mental Health Foundation and Yeswecare.nz have called for a suicide reduction target.

"The Government needs to work much harder to develop a plan for significant change that the community is inspired by and supports," Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said.

"A target for reducing deaths would be a good step in the right direction."

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman. Photo/File
Health Minister Jonathan Coleman. Photo/File

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman had refused to set a target for a reduced suicide rate, despite the mental health commissioner's recommendation to do so.

However, he said earlier this week there could be benefits in setting a target and would not rule it out.

"I've met some people who have worked in this area, specifically some people from the Zero Suicide group, and the point they made is actually setting targets changes the culture within the mental health workforce.

"It does seem that setting a goal, and it may be aspirational but that doesn't matter, it actually just focuses efforts."

Yeswecare.nz also supported a target for suicide reduction, along with five other measures to improve mental health care and reduce suicides.

A mental health inquiry, an additional $2.3b in funding, an increase in primary health funding, safe staffing levels and healthy homes are the group's other pledges.

The group has sent letters to all political parties in the lead-up to the election and their co-ordinator said all but two parties - Act and National - agreed to implement all six measures.

There should be a cross-party consensus on mental health, Mr Oosterman said.

"It's too big a thing to play politics with."

Other advocates, including Mr King, have also called for an inquiry into mental health services.

Dr Coleman has said reducing the youth suicide rate was his "top priority".

No one from Lakes District Health Board was available to comment before the deadline for this article.

WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:
DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234