Opinion piece: our priorities for New Zealand's first Minister of Mental Health


New Zealand’s first Minister for Mental Health, Matt Doocey, has a big job ahead of him. Te Hiringa Mahara | Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission chair Hayden Wano outlines our top priorities to transform our mental health and addiction system. 

The announcement that New Zealand will have its first ever Minister for Mental Health sitting in Cabinet is a welcome move. This dedicated role will bring a clear focus to mental health and addiction, and we are looking forward to tangible action and increased momentum over the coming term of government. But where should the new minister start?  

The COVID-19 pandemic, the increasingly severe natural disasters and the cost of living crisis has led to mounting concerns about whether services are readily available.  Mental health is more visible than ever before, and not always for the right reasons.  

What we need is a responsive mental health and addiction system where those that are most impacted by mental distress get the right support. This needs to be specific to the unique needs of communities, particularly those who already experience disadvantage. And support needs to be available when it is required.  

Building on the voices of thousands of people who contributed to the landmark Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry, and people we’ve heard from since being established in early 2021, these are our priorities for the new minister: provide more mental health services specifically designed to meet the needs of rangatahi and young people, deliver services that work for Māori, and  ensure anyone experiencing severe mental illness able to access care they need while having their right to choice respected.  

It is alarming that rates of psychological distress among our young people aged 15-24 years have more than quadrupled in the last 10 years. When compared to other countries young people in Aotearoa New Zealand are faring poorly. They are navigating unique challenges to previous generations, from climate change, cost of living pressures, inequality, and discrimination to an increasingly online world. These impact on young people’s ability to feel hopeful about their futures. 

Yet, recently released performance measures for Te Whatu Ora | Health NZ show a concerning increase in waiting times for young people to access specialist mental health services. The number one issue for secondary schools according to a recently released NZCER survey is support for students with mental health and wellbeing problems.  

The last thing we want to see is rangatahi and young people who are experiencing severe or acute distress, struggling to access support. A spectrum of age-appropriate services for rangatahi and young people needs to be available to anyone regardless of where they live in Aotearoa.   

We welcome services being agile and innovative to better meet the needs of diverse communities. One of the promising things we’re seeing is mental health services co-locating with other health and social supports to meet young people where they’re at. We have repeatedly been told that to get the best results these services should be co-designed with rangatahi and young people who have lived experience of mental distress.  

The challenges to progress are not confined to the size of the health budget. Having a workforce equipped to handle the challenges across all population groups is a top priority. We are calling for a detailed workforce plan to reduce clinical vacancies, and create a greater role for peer support, lived experience and cultural workforces.  

There are no shortcuts to making progress on the underlying drivers of mental health and wellbeing. Constant and persistent effort is required. This should be coordinated across agencies involved in housing, welfare, employment and related areas. This is why a Mental Health Minister position is so important. 

Take for example efforts to lift positive mental health and wellbeing for young people. These not only improve wellbeing in adulthood but also flow over into educational attainment, productivity and the economy more broadly.  

Everybody wants to focus on the ground improvements, yet we do need to be clear we are heading in the right direction and scarce resources are well targeted. The new Minister should mandate a mental health and wellbeing strategy through the Pae Ora / Healthy Futures Act, add a mental health target in the suite of proposed health targets, and commission the first mental health and wellbeing population prevalence survey since 2006. 

Looking back to the landmark Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry, there is a solid foundation for the new Minister to build on and although some progress has been made we need to go alot faster to make a tangible difference.