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NZ mental health system failing to support families

Mental health services are funded in ways that isolate family and friends from the people affected by mental illnesses and put vulnerable people at risk, according to Emma Doré, CEO of Supporting Families Auckland.

“New Zealand's suicide rate is climbing – the latest statistics show 668 people died in the year to June 30 – and yet it is still common for us to receive calls from family members in acute distress about what to do when someone they love is suicidal, or when someone has been discharged from hospital following a suicide attempt with no plan or advance notice given to those at home,” says Ms Doré.

“Families tell us they have tried calling health services only to be told that their concerns are unwarranted, they are overreacting, and very commonly, nothing can be discussed with them because of the Privacy Act. They are often told that if they are worried they should call the police.

“This is happening because currently services for people with mental health issues are funded quite separately to services which support their family and whanau. The predominant model instead focuses on the individual. This may work from a bureaucratic perspective, but it doesn’t make sense in terms of keeping people safe and helping them to recover. Bridging that gap is a significant challenge for professionals, and can feel impossible for families,” says Ms Doré.

“The health system makes mental health professionals the key people in the recovery process when in reality it is the family, whanau, friends, and loved ones of the person affected by mental illness who will support and sustain them over the course of their life, not a professional service.”

Supporting Families is an NGO that is contracted by DHBs throughout New Zealand to offer support and education to family and whanau members of people affected by mental illness.

“We take the view that everyone needs to be supported, together. We believe that families and whānau play a key role in the recovery process for someone who experiences a mental illness. We have been advocating for whole-of family-inclusion for 40 years,” says Ms Doré.

“Even though significant research has highlighted the importance of family and personal relationships in recovery, the current New Zealand mental health service model is still individualistic in its approach.”

To address these and other concerns, Supporting Families is holding its national conference from 9am to 5.00pm on Saturday 13 October 2018 at Orakei Marae in Auckland. The organisation hopes to attract a wide audience of families and people with lived experience of mental illness as well as mental health practitioners, and promote the concept of ‘Open Dialogue’, a recovery-oriented approach to mental health care originated in Finland in the 1980s, as an alternative to current mental health models.

“Referrals to our service have risen by 51% in the past year, and much of our work is currently spent simply liaising between family members and services. It would be great if that time could be used to help families to understand each other better and to work out together what’s needed to keep everyone well. Having a system that requires consumers to use one part of a service, without ensuring a connection to family support services does nothing to address tension and distress in a situation where everyone is under strain,” says Ms Doré.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right now to improve our mental health services. Now is the time to look around at what models and practices are really making a difference, and ask ourselves, what would I chose? How would I like to be treated? The National Inquiry into Mental Health Report is due in a few weeks, and we sincerely hope it will be pioneering and courageous in its recommendations.”

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