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Mental Health Foundation concerned about inadequate benefits

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) is pleased the Government has acknowledged the inadequacy of our social security system by offering those who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 better income support, and it joins its voice to those already calling for the Government to extend similar levels of income support to all those who need it, in order to diminish avoidable mental illness and distress.

Having a purpose, feeling connected, loved and valued are all essential to wellbeing and protective against suicide. During lockdown, we were all part of a team, working on a common goal. We all needed each other and, by and large, were there for each other. Lockdown worked because New Zealanders agreed to take drastic action to care for each other.

The Foundation is now concerned that our much-celebrated ‘team of five million’ is fracturing, and those who will be most affected are those who are our most vulnerable.

"This new COVID-19 income support is a welcome relief to many people who were really struggling after losing their jobs," MHF policy and advocacy manager Zoe Hawke says. "Existing benefits were too low to support those people and prevent huge distress. Why then is it so difficult to acknowledge that this is true for all people who receive benefits? Benefits are simply too low to survive on, and the resulting toxic stress, fear and anxiety living in poverty causes greatly increases mental distress and puts people at risk of suicide."

New Zealand knows a lot about how to prevent mental illness, distress and suicide. We even have blueprints for how to do it - among them, He Ara Oranga (the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addictions report) and Every Life Matters (the national suicide prevention framework). But we’re not investing in the things that make a meaningful difference.

The mahi that matters to improve mental health isn’t glamourous. It goes beyond beds in mental health units and funding hours with counsellors (both hugely important) - it means considering what makes life worth living and then ensuring that every New Zealander can access those things. It means looking at what is causing that distress in the first place and then actually doing something about it.

The support package announced this week has been seen by many people who miss out on this vital support as an indication they are not as valued, they are not worth as much as others - instantly diminishing their feeling of belonging to our "team of five million" and of being valued by their community, and dissolving the protection from mental distress and suicide those feelings provide.

"We cannot say on the one hand that we care about mental health and suicide prevention, and then on the other that we are unwilling to invest in what we know will make a meaningful, long-term difference to those who are most at risk, or to ensure that those who do experience distress have the means and resources to live, and to do so with dignity," Ms Hawke says. "This week’s announcement increases inequities and that is disastrous for the mental health of New Zealanders.

"It is far cheaper and kinder to ensure whānau have enough money to live on - that means enough money for food, shelter, clothing, transport, heating, education and recreation - than to deal with the long-term ill effects of people not having enough. These basic things are essential to mental health and wellbeing, and prevent many people from becoming mentally unwell in the first place."

We ask New Zealanders to think beyond what might be an instinctive response not to increase benefits but to ask themselves what the kind and right thing is to do in this moment? What does it say about our society if we allow some people, who are already struggling, to be economic shock absorbers for the rest of us?

The Foundation is supporting the call from Māori experts ( Precariat Māori Households Today2019) to create and properly resource a more humane system that supports our all carers and vulnerable people, a system which is genuinely based on core Māori values such as manaakitanga, whanaungatanga, kotahitanga, whakaiti (service to others with humility) and hūmārie (act with gentleness and kindness).

We also encourage the government to consider how current policies discriminate against people who live with mental distress or illness, Māori, Pasifika, women (particularly single parents), children and those with disabilities, by excluding them from accessing increased income support. Most of the people who will be affected by these exclusions are those who are already unable to work and therefore excluded from paid employment.

"The longer the wait to redress this inequity, the worse the outcomes will be," Ms Hawke says. "Action must be taken immediately and permanently to support those who depend on benefits to survive and live meaningful, valued and fulfilling lives."

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