Opinion Piece: Youth mental health crisis is getting worse

New Zealand has a unique window of opportunity to become the vanguard of youth mental health. New Zealanders should seize the moment in leading the way for new ideas and developments in how we respond to youth mental health in a time of a pandemic.

Sadly, for many other countries, the horse has bolted. In Australia, mental health professionals are calling declining youth mental health a shadow pandemic, in the United Kingdom their National Health Service is reporting the inability of youth mental health services to respond to surging waiting times, while in the United States the Surgeon General has warned of the devastating impact the pandemic has had on their young people's mental health.

In New Zealand we are seeing early signs of this shadow pandemic. This should be ringing alarm bells across the country.

Recent research from the University of Auckland confirmed a pandemic related increase in demand for eating disorder services for young people. Recently published data for dispensing of antidepressants by the Ministry of Health during the first year of the pandemic shows a disproportionate increase for younger people compared to other age groups.

Our DHBs are saying the pandemic has driven a surge in demand that they are struggling to meet, which is resulting in young people waiting longer than adults.

That's why as a country we should seize the moment instead of having one of the worst reputations for youth mental health and suicide we could become the vanguard of youth mental health.

With early warning signs in New Zealand pointing towards international experiences of declining youth mental health as a result of the pandemic, we should take this window of opportunity to lead the way with new ideas and developments in how we respond to pandemic related mental distress in our young people.

Last week, I wrote to Health Minister Andrew Little calling on him to urgently convene a Covid-19 youth mental health summit.

As a country, we need to be proactive rather than reactive in understanding the impacts of the pandemic on youth mental health and how to best prepare and respond.

The summit should bring the best minds around the table to agree on a national action plan on how best we prepare and respond: academics and researchers, mental health professionals, advocates, young people with lived experience, government ministry officials and cross-party political representation.

We need to identify the early signs of mental distress in our young people as a result of the pandemic, establish what further mental distress we may expect to encounter, and then agree on a national action plan to increase access to youth mental health support and reduce waiting times.

Youth mental health support should be both the promotion of mental wellbeing and the treatment of mental illness. It should also be in-person and digital.

We may not be able to stop the pandemic but we can mitigate the mental distress this is having on our young people and ensure they get timely access to the mental health support they need.