The broken mental health system of New Zealand

by The Voice of a Social Work Student

It is very evident that the mental health system is failing New Zealanders. It is a topic of concern, and thankfully it has started to gain media attention. In 2014 mental health disorders were the third-leading cause of health loss; sixteen percent of adults had been diagnosed with a common mental health disorder (Mental Health Foundation [MHF], 2014). Youth suicide rates in New Zealand are the second highest in the OECD which is equivalent to 19.3 deaths per 100,000 people (MHF, 2014). These statistics illustrate the severe need of competent and accessible mental health facilities.

The mental health system has been under great scrutiny, especially since The People’s Mental Health Review has been published (2017). The review consisted of 276 stories of people who were/are mental health service-users, 78 who worked in the sector and 154 were family members of people using or working in mental health, a total of 500 stories. Common themes were identified among these stories including difficult access and long wait times, limited treatment options, lack of oversight and being made to feel dismissed and dehumanized. Service-users have describe a ‘grey area’ which they find themselves in when they do not qualify for and are not able to access services independently. Service-users have also reported that they are not sure of the appropriate services that they require. Employers in the mental health field are working long hours and are underpaid resulting in ‘burnout’.

These claims are supported by national headlines of victims and their families who have had a less than satisfactory experience; the death of Nicky Stevens is unfortunately an example of this. The 21-year-old was a patient of Waikato Hospital’s Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre, suffering from schizophrenia and on suicide watch, had stepped outside for a 15-minute cigarette break, after two hours staff called police to report him missing (Warhurst, 2017). Nicky Stevens was found three days later, dead in the Waikato river (Warhurst, 2017). There is no wonder that there have been recent calls for an independent inquiry into the country’s mental health system.

Many have acknowledged the very little availability of services despite an increase of mental health funding from 1.1 billion to 1.3 billion since 2008 (Wright, 2016).  An example of this can be found in New Zealand prisons, where inmates are three times more likely to suffer from mental illness. It is clear that our current system is ineffective, to say the least.  Not to mention the removal of the mental health commission in 2012, despite being the only independent body for mental health services (Wright, 2016).  How could this possibly help to ensure accountability and reliability?

Our mental health system is better known as an ambulance at the bottom of the hill.  As a country we need to acknowledge the failures of the system and take action. For a more effective system we must be dedicated to providing early interventions, faster assessments, increase mental health education, support and funding.


Mental Health Foundation (2014). Quick Facts and Stats 2014. Retrieved from        stats-FINAL.pdf

The People’s Mental Health Report. (2017). Retrieved from   

Warhurst, L. (2017). Nicky Stevens’ family reject DHB’s investigation into death. Newshub. Retrieved from

Wright, T. (2016). What’s behind New Zealand’s mental health funding crisis?       Newshub.  Retrieved from  


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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