Improving Health for Youth

  • Deborah Morris
Youth Affairs


Good morning. It's great to be here to have the opportunity to speak you, as you all play a major part in the health and wellbeing, and therefore the future, of our young people.

As Minister of Youth Affairs I have recognised the need for us to place particular emphasis on adolescent health. Typically we see young people as a healthy generation, not normally needing much attention. However, if we look more closely there are many concerns, that if not treated can lead to much greater problems in later life.

There is much already happening in the field of adolescent health - and that success must be down to you, the operators in the field.

I was recently told about a success story in the mental health service, and I'd like to share that with you.

The Ministry of Youth Affairs runs a youth development programme for young people - most of whom are experiencing a range of problems, be it unemployment, low self-esteem... A supervisor of one of our courses was approached by a parent and asked to take her son onto a course. He had recently been discharged from a psychiatric ward with a serious mental disorder. The boy had spent the last month swinging all day on their swing at home and his parents were very keen for him to be able to participate in the programme. The supervisor, with some unease, agreed.

Soon after this he was approached by staff of mental health services and asked how they could support him. Someone came round and explained in detail the boy's condition and the medication he was on. He was provided with phone numbers to call at anytime, and told that if he needed help on days when he was too unwell to participate in the course he could attend hospital as a day patient.

The supervisor was very impressed and felt a lot more confident about having the boy on the course. The story has not got an ending - as far as I know the boy is still on the programme - he isn't well, and at times needs to be home. The healing process will take time, and won't be easy.

That story highlights for me the active and supportive work that you are doing in the community for unwell young people.

Normally the services that you provide are a last port of call - I guess some are very reluctant to use you. You have to deal with some very difficult young people, in circumstances that are not always ideal.

The letters and faxes I receive in my office highlight how challenging your work is, and also highlight for me how challenging it is for Government to effectively deal with this.

One of the major issues that we are trying to grapple with is youth suicide. As you are all no doubt aware, New Zealand's youth suicide rate is an issue that is discussed widely and concerns many people. And so it should. Within this forum I want to look at this issue and acknowledge that your work can make a significant impact in keeping the figures down.

I'm absolutely confident that without your expertise, wisdom and perseverance, our youth suicide rate would be higher.

My experience over the last year has highlighted that when those that work with young people, work closely together, mountains can be moved. The area of child and youth mental health, as you are all no doubt aware, also requires working closely with the range of people who impact on young people's lives.

We can't just view and deal with a young person in neat little compartments like education, health, welfare and justice. We have to ensure that they are all linked and that they are communicating. What happens in one part of a person's life will have an impact on the other part - and if we don't recognise that and deal with it then we are unlikely to solve many of the problems facing our youth.

Be it family, teachers, youth justice coordinators, TOPS tutors, Conservation Corps supervisors - establishing successful links with these groups can really help us make a difference. Nurturing the mental health of a child and the young is a responsibility shared by many.

You will no doubt be aware of the work that the Ministry of Youth Affairs is leading, with the Ministry of Health and Te Puni Kokiri, in relation to a National Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy. I'm sure some of you will have had direct input into this important project.

Shortly I will be taking to my Cabinet colleagues some recommendations based on this strategy. I don't think I'm letting the cat out of the bag by saying that this piece of work has highlighted the importance of your services in having an impact on the levels of youth suicide. I will be constantly working to ensure the needs of young people are not left off the list - to ensure that core services are inclusive of child and youth services.

Data from the Canterbury Suicide Project shows that 90% of young people under the age of 25 years who have made a serious suicide attempt had a current diagnosis of at least one psychiatric disorder such as major depression, substance abuse, or an antisocial disorder.

Furthermore, 22% of those who attempted suicide had in the previous year been admitted to a psychiatric hospital and 57% had in the previous month seen a health professional for a psychiatric complaint.

That tells us a lot - and shows where we have to put much of our effort.

We need to place particular emphasis on those who have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, and we also need to be able to easily identify young people who may have a psychiatric disorder

Health services must be easily accessible and friendly for young people. Looking at the figures I mentioned earlier, GPs and other first point of contact practitioners have a major role to play.

Research has shown that young people are often not too keen on approaching GPs about health problems - that was part of the reason behind the one Stop Shop initiative which is now popular throughout the country. It enables young people to go to a single venue where they can access information, advice, support and medical attention.

Young people said that they needed services to be under one roof, free, easily accessible by public transport, confidential and relaxed. Youth were involved in the development of One Stop Shops, and they are often involved in the management of them too - that's part of their success story.

That's not always possible, so another initiative that has proved to be useful is training GPs to be more youth friendly. In Nelson a group of young people got together and helped to train their GPs in looking at the needs of young people and making them more youth friendly.

So now the GPs are in a much better position to help and identify the needs of the young people that visit them, and the young people are more relaxed in their visits to their GP.

The One Stop Shop model has emphasised the importance of collecting data on the needs and services that young people are accessing. This also assists in the evaluation of the services that we provide.

Sadly, we don't know a lot about the services that we are providing for youth. We need to put much more effort into coordinating that information so we are able to identify and fill the gaps that exist.

So, coordination, expertise, youth involvement and information. All of these together will see dramatic improvements in the outcomes for young people.

I believe that if we aim to achieve these goals, the people we call our future will in fact be the leaders of tomorrow.