National | Maternal Mental Health

Mental health system at breaking point - experts

Mental health experts are warning the system, and the workforce within it in Aotearoa, is on the brink of collapse, despite large increases in funding in recent years.

A report in the NZ Medical Journal written by Otago University's Department of Psychological Medicine says more than 10 per cent of positions within the mental health system remain vacant, the workforce is ageing quickly and gaining tertiary qualifications to work in the sector is becoming a "luxury New Zealand can no longer afford."

Associate Professor James Foulds is one of the authors of the report. He says that translates to more than 800 vacancies across the system, and that is putting a strain on the care of patients as well as on the existing workforce.

"If you imagine that you're missing 10 per cent of your workforce, that means that the rest of the staff have to pick up that work. People are taking on extra shifts, they're basically worn out. It's very difficult for the nurse managers to staff the shifts, they're spending a lot of their time just having to ring around and find people to do the work.

"The reality is we're not going to be able to find doctors, nurses, psychologists in the short term to fill those roles.

Is training fit for purpose?

"So I think it's actually an opportunity to look at what our workforce should look like. And there may be some actual benefits that come from looking at who we have at the frontlines."

One of the options, he suggests, is to review the training requirements and if they remain fit for purpose.

"I think we need to build opportunities for on-the-job training for people, to lower the barriers to people coming into the mental health workforce so that they aren't having to go away and do a three-year tertiary degree, racking up tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

"There's a perception currently of the mental health system being difficult and under strain. And so we need to convince people of the value of that work, and that by coming in, they can make a difference."

Māori and Pasifika expertise needed

Māori and Pasifika, in particular he says, are people who need to be targeted for recruitment, including for leadership positions within the sector. There are many reasons and benefits he sees for having more specialised, lived expertise in the workforce.

"The first reason is that among the people accessing secondary mental health services is just over a quarter of Māori, against about 14 per cent of the workforce. So having more Māori in the workforce would allow it to match up with the breakdown of the people that are accessing the service.

"The other main reason is that having good knowledge of tikanga Māori speaking as a non-Māori myself, I've seen how that can really help the outcomes for whaiora. There are also other benefits. When you've got more Māori with that specialised knowledge in the workforce it benefits the non-Māori clinicians as well in terms of the learning."

Public Interest Journalism