Kantar's Better Futures report found, for the first time, the mental wellbeing of New Zealanders has entered the top 10 issues of concern for Kiwis.
After two years of Covid-19 this is no surprise. The Mental Health Foundation commissioned research which shows a dramatic increase in the number of New Zealanders with poor mental wellbeing; from 27 per cent struggling in February 2021 to 36 per cent in February 2022.
This is on top of the pre-Covid statistics; we've known for some time 20 per cent of us experience diagnosable mental distress in any year.
We've all felt it – in ourselves, in our whānau, our friends, our colleagues and our communities. It's almost impossible not to speak in cliches and platitudes about just how difficult things are for so many of us right now. It would be extraordinary if the compounding effects of the prolonged pandemic, economic pressures and extended periods of isolation did not influence our mental health.
New Zealanders' mental wellbeing is tracking to the same pattern we saw following other disasters such as the Christchurch earthquakes. Lives and livelihoods are disrupted, our ways of connecting with each other are changing, we are realising we cannot return to our pre-Covid lives.
Increasing numbers of New Zealanders are living with the long-term impacts of the disease itself (around 5 per cent of people who have had Covid-19 will subsequently be diagnosed with a mental illness), and, sadly, many of our whānau are grieving loved ones lost to Covid-19.
Many of these things were beyond our control, but we could have and should have done more to protect New Zealanders' mental and emotional wellbeing, to prepare our people for challenging times. The MHF has been advocating for investment in population-level mental health and wellbeing promotion for more than a decade, not just as a response to a disaster but to help Kiwis to live and thrive through the ordinary challenges of life.
These calls were largely unheeded, but we're here now to say the tail of the mental health impacts of Covid-19 will be long, and we cannot afford to ignore them. There will be other disasters in the future. We must urgently invest in the mental wellbeing of New Zealanders in the long-term to ensure we all have the best possible opportunity to enjoy good mental health and overcome challenges with the support of our loved ones and community.
Because, the good news is, we know there are things everyone can do to improve their wellbeing, even during the toughest of times. In 2021, our research tested a range of daily behaviours that are proven to support resilience and wellbeing. People who had just one of these behaviours in their daily lives had a 48 per cent higher chance of enjoying strong mental wellbeing. And, the effect was cumulative – the more things an individual did, the higher their wellbeing.
Our new All Sorts programme is an example of this wellbeing promotion in action for the Omicron outbreak. We do what we can with the resources we can get.
But, by and large, New Zealand doesn't teach people behaviours and habits that support their mental health. Habits are hard to create, it's not enough to just give people information and expect them to change. We have to invest in motivating people to adopt behaviours within their lifestyle. It is an investment that will pay off tenfold.
Promoting wellbeing was one of the three key planks of the recommendations of "He Ara Oranga" the report of the Government's Inquiry into Mental Health and Addictions – 1) promote wellbeing, 2) expand services, 3) prevent the causes of mental distress. This approach is also incorporated into Kia Manawanui – the Government's 2021 strategic direction for mental health.
We want more than words on paper. We want to see the Government make wellbeing promotion a priority in its mental health response. We want to see big investment in mental health and wellbeing in the next budget and beyond. Thirty-six per cent of us are struggling, 20 per cent are experiencing diagnosable distress - the response needs to be commensurate with this scale and sustained long term.
If the response to mental health includes mental wellbeing it will help reduce stress on services, which will sadly be stretched for a long time to come.
Covid-19 has pushed many pressing needs to the surface, but we must not push past the urgent mental health needs of New Zealand. We need sustained wellbeing promotion. If we do it now, do it well and do it for everyone, all New Zealanders will have the skills and tools they need to get through.
• Shaun Robinson is the chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation.