It is a telephone service that has helped more than 15,000 people at one time or another. It has saved lives and helped to resolve crises as diverse as bullying, family violence and drug use. But now Lifeline Aotearoa has an even bigger crisis on its hand: its own survival.
It is difficult to qualitatively or quantitatively get a full and accurate measure of how much this service has helped New Zealand and New Zealand society at large. The depth and meaningful nature of the conversations that have been had between vulnerable people and counsellors over this phone service perhaps only the counsellors and their clients will understand.
The Government says more and more money is going into mental health, whilst the Opposition says it is chronically underfunded. Regardless of the politics of mental health, the cost to New Zealand society of not having a well funded and resourced mental health service with appropriately trained professionals is immense. For every person who commits suicide, suffers domestic violence that a phone call could have helped to avoid, is on drugs, there are a host of others around them who suffer the consequences of the harm to that person.
Regardless of who is in power, there needs to be a systemic overhaul of mental health services. Our understanding has changed substantially since the 1960’s approach of institutionalised care that often led to horrendous abuse of vulnerable people and created individuals who upon release into society were nothing more than ticking time bombs with a monumental hatred, lacking the social skills to help themselves. The understanding of the need to support families who have to deal with the fact that one of their number is unable to function like a normal member of society or can, but only with very specialized support, has likewise changed.
So, why then is it still a major talking point when someone admits to fighting depression? Why is it still a big talking point about funding rehabilitation programmes for those who want to clean themselves of drugs that they might be on? Why do farmers still commit suicide and feel like they have to go it alone?
All that to me suggests New Zealand is as a nation not so far advanced in terms of addressing mental health issues, their causes or their consequences as we would like to think. And that bothers me.