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Is media mental health coverage helping?

New Zealand’s biggest-ever inquiry into our mental health system says it’s broken and action is urgent. Many in the media pointed out that’s what previous inquiries have said too so we shouldn’t expect much meaningful change now. Is that realistic reporting or damaging defeatism?   

This week the government’s Mental Health & Addiction Inquiry concluded our current system is not only under-resourced and under pressure but also unsustainable.  

The much-anticipated report led the TV news that evening but that the government’s not due to respond formally until next March prompted plenty of comment. 

Newshub’s Tova O’Brien said they should have had an action plan already and it made her “furious”.

Plenty of other pundits made the same point that New Zealand’s mental health system has been pulled apart before in major investigations.

Jessica McAllen – a freelance journalist who specialises in mental health issues – catalogued them recently in a story for RNZ called History Repeats.

“In 2028 will New Zealand be on the verge of another inquiry into mental health and addictions? Or will we look back at 2018 as another lip service report?” she asked.

Big questions.

But there’s a lot in this latest inquiry report to consider and she’s followed it more closely than any other journalist.

She also has personal experience of the mental health system and its flaws.

The inquiry was a $6.5 million project encompassing more than 5,000 submissions and 26 public meetings around the country. Jessica McAllen went to 15 of them.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

This week Stuff published her three-part series about that including some pretty vivid vignettes from the meetings and personal stories of people who took part in them.

“In the report they refer to 3.6% of New Zealanders who go through specialist services  – and expanding that to 20%.

“I have a long-term mental illness. I am one of the 3.6%,” she told Mediawatch.

Documenting the entire inquiry process was a huge undertaking – and a costly one.

Jessica McAllen turned to crowdfunding for the resources to follow the inquiry around the country.  

“You have to admire a freelancer who gets herself to 15 meetings of the govt mental health and addiction inquiry and writes – beautifully – an in-depth story about what it all means without having a buyer for her copy,” said journalist Donna Chisholm on Twitter.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the crowdfunding,” McAllen said.

“There were times when I had to dip into my own savings and make the money up when crowdfunding came in. I was really surprised how much people wanted to give,” she told Mediawatch. 

Her initial idea was to report week-to-week from around the country because she says the opinions and experiences in the regions are different.

Jessica McAllen

Jessica McAllen
Photo: Supplied

The room “vibrated with anger” in Invercargill, she reported.  

“The town is familiar with working groups and reports that never translate to action,” she wrote. The police shooting of Eric Gellatly there in 1995 prompted the Mason Inquiry into mental health services the following year.

In its opening lines, the Mason Report in 1996 made a point about the media response back then.

“Yet again the media, talk back hosts and Parliament debated the quantity and quality of mental health services, and in particular the issues of dangerousness, public safety and the inaccessibility of services. The term ‘ex-psychiatric patient’ assumed a place of notoriety on the airwaves,” said the report.

Reporting the public meetings for this year’s inquiry wasn’t simply a case of ‘say what you see’.

“There were strict rules around reporting,” Jessica McAllen told Mediawatch.

“They had initially closed the meetings to media and a few of us kicked up a fuss and they changed the rules to say we couldn’t identify people speaking,” she said.

While the panel were trying to protect people’s privacy, Jessica McAllen said it felt patronising and as if they were “babying” the people who took part.

Realism or defeatism?  

Health minister David Clark insisted the inquiry would usher in long-lasting changes but much of the media comment this week contradicted him.

Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking was unmoved by the inquiry – and the media coverage of it.

“I watched the news last night in dismay, as yet again we got ‘extensive coverage’ with yet again the same tired series of so-called experts saying the same old tired things they’ve said for 20 years. But when we go down this rabbit hole of mental health, what’s going to get done? Nothing,” he said.

Jessica McAllen also fears the current inquiry will not be the circuit-breaker that reforms the system.

Cynically, I can see the government increasing mental health funding, but not by nearly enough, and adding a bunch of prevention and promotion campaigns,” she said in her recent Stuff article.

Is that realistic reporting – or defeatism that could be another barrier to making changes?

“It is frustrating that people are reporting that, but I wish it had happened during the election campaign. Some health professionals didn’t want an inquiry. We should have been covering the pitfalls of having one before it became an election promise,” she told Mediawatch.

The Otago Daily Times reports in 1995

The Otago Daily Times reports in 1995
Photo: Otago Daily Times

While much of the media coverage has emphasised the scale of the problem and past failures to reform the system, what of the 40 recommendations this week’s report puts forward?

Stuff political reporter Stacey Kirk picked out two in an opinion piece –  e-therapy and better resourcing to have paramedics paired with police on emergency mental health call-outs. 

“They were two projects piloted by the last government…  both cancelled by the new government and the $100 million sitting in contingency to pay for them and other initiatives was absorbed back into the wider health budget,” Stacey Kirk wrote. 

“It can be hard to convince people who make the decisions to run a mental health story because it’s so complicated. A story on teenage suicide is easy to run, but it’s hard for anything more nuanced,” said Jessica McAllen. 

First-hand experience

“Our whole conversation . . . is often dominated by those without issues themselves. Our knowledge is only half-baked,” she wrote in part one of her Stuff series this week.

“You wouldn’t force someone to down egg yolk as a hangover cure just because their cousin said so. Not if they knew what really worked for them was hot chocolate,” she wrote.

“The main thing here is to listen to people who have lived experience of mental health. Their voices are often put to the side,” she said.

But if reform of a system depends on structural things budgets, effective admin and political will, do all the personal stories of people around the country help identify the way forward? 

“People who live with mental illness know the systemic problems,” said Jessica McAllen. 

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