The child and adolescent mental health crisis demands urgency.

One of the disturbing facts to emerge from our series on youth suicide came from Ministry of Health data on referrals to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.

Documents released to the Herald under the Official Information Act showed that 32,064 children and teenagers were referred to the service last year. That is about 90 young New Zealanders a day, or close to the population of the West Coast. The total of referrals has grown by nearly 6000 since 2012.

The service, which provides consultation, assessment and treatment, only deals with those most unwell. It operates on the assumption that services below this acute level run effectively when clearly they do not. According to parents and teachers interviewed as part of our series Break the Silence, the service can be difficult to access.


While over 32,000 got referred last year, some 1824 children and teenagers were turned down.

Distressed parents who contacted us complained that they could only get their children seen by service professionals if their sons or daughters had a plan to kill themselves. Officials rejected this extraordinary assertion on the grounds that Ministry of Health policy required that people in crisis needed to be seen within 48 hours.

But even those not assessed as urgent are forced to wait weeks to get help. Some 753 children aged 11 and under had to wait more than two months for a non-urgent mental health assessment last year.

Parents have told us they are at their wits' end. Principals are just as frustrated. Pat Newman, the head of Te Tai Tokerau Principals Association, says he is contemplating advising the 150 Northland schools in the group to expel all pupils with severe behavioural problems.

It is an extreme response to a desperate problem, but Newman says that despite fighting he is not succeeding in getting help for children. An educator for 40 years, Newman says he has seen suicide issues shift from adults to teenagers to primary pupils.

The evidence presented during our series shows the current policy is failing because, as is abundantly clear, New Zealand has a crisis with adolescent mental health. It is worth stating again that New Zealand has the second worst suicide rate among those aged 25 and under in the developed world. Our teen suicide rate - officially those aged 15-19 - is the worst.

By any measure these are awful statistics and demand a clear, immediate and brave response. It was heartening to hear Dr Ian Soosay, the Ministry's deputy director of mental health, say there was a sense of urgency around the issue.

Soosay, a psychiatrist, accepts that New Zealand has not done enough to help children with mental health problems and that different thinking is required.


This year's Budget set aside an additional $224 million for mental health services over the next four years. About $25m a year will go towards "innovative" proposals to tackle mental health issues.

A lot of parents and principals would like to hear from Health Minister Jonathan Coleman exactly how this money will be invested in repairing the system and provide some comfort to families struggling with their children.

This issue has not surfaced overnight. It has long warranted a call to arms. Coleman needs sooner rather than later to explain to families and schools what exactly is coming from the sense of urgency that one of his senior officials says now surrounds the country's terrible state of child mental health.