By Kent Atkinson of NZPA
Wellington, March 25 NZPA - The downturn hitting the economy will bring a "tsunami" of mental health problems with an increased incidence of depression, anxiety and suicide, Mental Health Commission chairman Peter McGeorge says.
"Once we get a chance to talk to the Health Minister, we want to raise the issue of the social impacts of the economic recession," Dr McGeorge said in Wellington today.
"It is of the highest and utmost importance," he told NZPA.
"A big recession will bring a tsunami of mental health problems in the community.
"Unfortunately, in time of recession, everybody looks at their back pocket, and nobody thinks about the emotional repairs that will be necessary."
There was a need for central government and the district health boards to recognise that if existing resources for mental health were diverted to other areas of the health sector "we are going to be in major strife".
The Mental Health Commission's 1998 blueprint for mental health services recognised the need for them to reduce the risks of mentally ill people being harmed or harming others.
Work by the Health Funding Authority and commission in 2000 indicated an extra $300 million a year was needed to fully implement the strategy for mental health services.
"While funding has proceeded well and systematically, there's a great need to complete the blueprint," Dr McGeorge told Parliament's health select committee today.
An incomplete system -- even with ring-fencing for some mental health funding -- could be vulnerable.
"It's well known that times of high unemployment are associated with increases in mental health problems and we urge the decision-makers in Government to take that into account."
In tough times, there was not only increased demand for increased funding of physical welfare, through housing and benefits, but a need to cope with higher levels of mental illness.
"The most vulnerable people will become more vulnerable," said Dr McGeorge.
"We are going to not only raise these issues with the minister, but talk to frontline organisations like Lifeline, because those sorts of services will pick up the early signs."
Lifeline is a 24-hour counselling services which has people trained to intervene with would-be suicides.
"We need to organise the system now to build up some resilience -- we can cope if we are prepared."
He warned that some mental health services might be seen as "soft" in comparison with surgery, but were actually absolutely vital.
A decline in mental health would have its own knock-on effects on the economy across a broader base than only the health sector -- additional costs could be as varied as rises in road crashes, or people suffering falls.
Dr McGeorge also called for the health sector to become "smarter" in the way that money for mental health was spent.
"That means much more emphasis on integrated care than has been the case in the past," he said.
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