‘An Ambulance with Three Flat Tyres’: NZ Mental Health System

by Kara Stanford

“The system has always been an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, but now the cliff is higher and the ambulance has three flat tyres. You have to be really fucked up to get any help” (Elliot, 2016, p. 12).

Capturing the essence of the present situation this mental health service user creates a powerful image of the current state of the New Zealand mental health system.

Deemed a stretched and broken system by Green Party health spokeswoman Julie-Anne Genter (as cited in Carville, 2017) New Zealand’s mental health system has come under scrutiny as of late with a demand for a formal government inquiry. With no movement from the government, an independent ‘Peoples Mental Health Report‘  was established in 2016 with the collection and analysis of almost 500 stories from people involved in mental health services. This review and current media attention (Carville, 2017; MacDonald, 2017 has highlighted significant gaps in care that comes down to a under-resourced system that is stretched to its limit, with a staggering 93% of the review stories focusing on challenges and concerns experienced. Most commonly experienced challenges were problems accessing services and a workforce that felt overstrained and under resourced (Elliot, 2016).

Sadly, this is not new. Five years ago, my family and I experienced immense emotional pain and stress on multiple occasions as we battled to be heard and to receive adequate support from mental health services. On multiple occasions, we were turned away for support and placed on waiting lists as our situation was ranked as less important because attempted suicide had not yet occurred. Reading the news articles of families crying for help and being told exactly what we were told five years ago is heart-breaking and highlights an issue that has plagued New Zealand for far too long (Carville, 2017).

Unfortunately, mental health is not something that can wait without there being significant impact. Impacts on employment, education, loved ones, and day to day life. The fear, pain, uncertainty, sleepless nights, and weeks off work that plague the individuals and families placed on waiting lists is not something I would wish upon anyone, but regrettably, is happening across New Zealand.

We are also seeing an increased use of medication as a band-aid solution to cover up the shortfalls of an under-resourced system.  Medication offers a quick, cheap, and temporary fix to a crumbling system; it requires less man-hours than talking therapies and social support services. However, it comes with its own limitations, shortfalls, and negatives including ignorance of wider variables, adverse reactions, lack of long term solutions, and sometimes little or no benefit (McDonald, 2013).

The impact that the lack of access to mental health services and overuse of medication had on my family was extensive, creating subsequent pain, stress, and suffering on top of an already challenging situation.

Increasing funding to the system will enable the ambulance to ‘fill its tyres’ and shave away at the top of the cliff, but what really needs to happen is the application of a wider scope of focus. New Zealand needs to look at preventative measures by tackling some factors that have significantly increased the rate of mental illness; for example, housing, unemployment, bullying, poverty, and discrimination (Elliot, 2016).


Carville, O. (2017, April 15). Frantic parents say only suicidal kids being seen. New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11837264

Elliot, M. (2016). People’s mental health report. Retrieved from  https://713students2017thesocialworkissuesblog.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/dff43-pmhr28final29.pdf

MacDonald, K. (2017, April 13). Why are out mental health staff ignoring family information? New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=11836956

McDonald, T. (2013, December) Out of mind: is New Zealand mental health system failing our youth? Investigate, 10(141), 10-19. Retrieved from https://issuu.com/iwishart/docs/hers_dec13jan14


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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