Is anybody else confused by the shortage of mental health counselling services around the country right now?
Over the past six months, we have seen a steady flow of alarming media stories highlighting the chronic shortfalls in mental health services, including but not limited to underfunded services, excruciating wait times of up to 12 months and burn-out by mental health professionals.
As someone who stood alongside the Prime Minister at a press conference and defended the Government from attacks by the opposition parties, going on record to say that "this Government has done more in six months than the last government did in nine years", I am disappointed and embarrassed by the state of mental health support today.
Despite what the Ministry of Health is telling us, capacity is not the issue – there are plenty of counsellors available. The issue is the Ministry of Health's reluctance to pay for counsellors, deflecting criticism in terms of MOH priorities dealing with Covid-19, the "Year of the Vaccination".
In March, Health Minister Andrew Little was reported saying that he knows there is frustration in the sector, but they are moving as fast as they can with the capacity that they've got.
This admission begs the question: Why his Ministry of Health is ignoring the "click and collect" resource available through Gumboot Friday-funded free counselling service? This is a service currently funded by public donations that has more than 3800 registered counsellors across the country and has already allocated more than 15,500 hours of free counselling to thousands of young Kiwis under 25.
And let me be clear, this slap in the face has not been delivered by the Government – they can't make funding agreements with individual organisations – but by the Ministry of Health which, despite lauding the "team of five million" during Covid-19, refuses to fund a service created by the people for our most vulnerable people.
Gumboot Friday is an initiative founded by an ordinary New Zealander, Joesephine Nathan, who wanted to do something about the long wait times and excruciating protocols needed to access face-to-face counselling. Her idea was to ask the public to help raise funds to provide kids with free voluntary counselling when and where it was needed, to take the pressure off our overstretched frontline mental health services and workers.
Last week the Government announced an expansion of Mana Ake, or Stronger for Tomorrow, investing $28 million in an early intervention in-school mental health and well-being programme that addresses mild to moderate mental health needs of Year 1 to 8 children before they become more serious.
The programme will be expanded to kids on the West Coast, Bay of Plenty, Rotorua, Taupo, South Auckland and Northland and it is hoped to be rolled out by the beginning of 2022 at a cost of a further $10 million.
It's great that there is some funding for this programme, but by comparison, if Gumboot Friday was given $28 million that would equate to 300,000 free counselling sessions nationwide, not just in 5 centres.
Gumboot Friday connects anyone under 25 with a private counsellor in their area with one click of a button – and picks up the bill. The efficient and effective service has been running for the last two years and has achieved some outstanding results.
• Average cost: $124 per session
• Average sessions per client: four
• Average response time: 48 hours
• Average wait time: six days
• In year one 40 per cent of clients were male - the most at-risk group
• And nearly 40 per cent of clients were aged 11 and under.
When you compare these figures and costs with any current MOH programme in the same sector, it beats them all in terms of bang for buck and customer satisfaction hands down and it won't cost $10m of public money to roll it out - because it's already up and running.
And if that isn't proof enough, not only have we had DHB clinicians referring their clients to avoid insufferably long waiting lists, but we've also had clinicians sign up to Gumboot Friday to finish seeing clients no longer eligible for funding.
When shown the data, Little said" "The declines from DHBs [driving demand for GBF] are striking."
As someone who is in the mental health trenches, I am simply staggered that a resource that New Zealanders deem worthy of funding is being ignored by the Ministry of Health. It's not only reprehensible behaviour from the officials but continues the status quo where New Zealanders facing mental health challenges are left questioning if they're important enough to get help.
It seems to me that the well-worn catch cry of our Prime Minister to "go hard, go early" – at least in the eyes of the Ministry of Health, applies to everything except the lives of young New Zealanders.
• This year's Gumboot Friday fundraiser is on May 28. For more information on how you can help go to www.gumbootfriday.com.