Not all wounds heal. The RSA Poppy Appeal this week rolled out that slogan as part of a campaign spotlighting veterans' mental health. Officials say mental health injuries are the most common, but least understood, of all wounds suffered by New Zealand servicemen and women.
Those who contribute time and talent serving our country deserve the best healthcare available. We also must continue assessing how to provide better mental health services for the rest of us. Left untreated and under-treated, mental illness and/or emotional problems cost everyone. Untreated and under-treated, these issues destroy families, claim individual lives and wipe out bystanders who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Despite consciousness-raising throughout the eons - suicide hotlines, public speaking tours, community education, etc… it's easier or perhaps seems more relevant to campaign for resolution of more visible public health and safety issues than it is to beat the drum demanding more government dollars so you or I or Joe Bloggs down the street can get help for hidden afflictions blanketing our brains like a storm cloud.
Take, for example, the campaign to improve State Highway 2 north of Bethlehem. Organisers of Fix the Bloody Road Action Group have amassed 1700 (and counting) members, erected dozens of wooden crosses along the road, made bumper stickers, written emails to local and national officials and spoken up at council meetings. Bravo to them for their diligence and passion.
I asked the New Zealand Transport Agency for updated SH2 crash statistics from 2012 to 2018 (2017/18 figures are provisional and current as of 27 March). From the intersection of SH25 at Waihi to the intersection of SH29 at Tauranga, 26 people died, and 63 were seriously hurt during that time.
During the reporting period of July 2012 to June 2017, the Bay of Plenty lost 166 people to suicide. The number of suicides in the Bay of Plenty last year reached an eight-year high.
In the year to June, 41 Bay people took their own lives, six more than the year before. Suicides of those already in the mental health system have increased in the Bay of Plenty in recent years.
There were six suspected suicides among those already in the care of the mental health system in the Bay of Plenty DHB area in 2015/16. There were two in 2013/14, and four the previous year.
Nationally, records from the Chief Coroner show men committed suicide at three times the rate of women. Maori rates were also well above the national average. Age groups with the highest rate of suicide were 20-24 and 40-44.
Mental health advocates locally have held vigils, walks and workshops, lobbied lawmakers and reached out to friends and acquaintances to share their stories. There are T-shirts. And fundraising campaigns. Yet we still hear how hard it is to access mental health services. Parents bring a suicidal teen to a doctor, only to be sent home with instructions to watch their child around the clock.
People who die by their own hand leave a legacy of grief often causing loved ones to feel shame. Obituaries and eulogies omit cause of death, which is whispered later over coffee and cake. If we only knew... They abandon a tearful trail of family and friends, many of whom will wonder if they could have done something to prevent their loved one from killing themself.
The wider community is touched by behaviours displayed by people experiencing suicidal thoughts, such as medicating with alcohol or drugs, driving recklessly - or all three - while on SH2 or another road you and I drive all the time.
Advocates say people need quick and easy access to face-to-face counselling because it works. A Labour spokesman last year said there were "cracks across the system", because each district health board was trying to cut corners. They said there had been a 60 per cent increase in people seeking mental health services since 2008, yet spending had risen by just 28 per cent.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a ministerial inquiry into mental health, with a committee set to report back by October. Forty-three million dollars has been proposed to fund a two-year pilot programme linking primary care doctors and counsellors.
There's blame to share, judging from public health catastrophes under previous Labour governments. We just can't get it right. Remember asylums? They're gone, but what remains are revolving doors of people who exhaust their allotted government-funded counselling sessions; medications that aim to replace talk therapy; and waiting lists for specialists.
We need to hold elected officials to account when it comes to providing greater access to mental health services with the same vigour the local road group employs.
Considering the number of deaths attributed to mental health issues – the suicide toll –
maybe it's time for a new bumper sticker: "Stop the suicides. Fund mental health."
IF YOU NEED 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 police immediately on 111.
Or if you need to talk to someone else:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (Mon-Fri 1pm to 10pm. Sat-Sun 3pm-10pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Samaritans 0800 726 666