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John Key

4 April, 2012

Speech to Auckland University Youth Health & Wellbeing Symposium

Good morning, it’s great to be here.

I’d like to acknowledge my Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, and the many other youth health experts here today.

It’s a privilege for me to be here with so many people who are committed to the health and wellbeing of our young people.

Thank you for the work that you do.

I share your passion for the future of our young New Zealanders.

As I travel around New Zealand, the energy and enthusiasm of the vast majority of our young people makes me hugely optimistic for our country.

So many kids are on the right track and have high aspirations for their future.

But I worry about some kids – those who finding the transition from childhood to adulthood tough going.

I worry about kids who are not getting the opportunities they need to succeed in the modern world. That’s why we’ve introduced our Youth Guarantee and Trades Academies policies, which give young people more choices to get the training they need.

I worry about the kids who are dropping out of school and lacking direction. That’s why we’re wrapping support around them through our ambitious welfare reforms.

I worry about the kids who’ve gone badly off the rails in their teenage years. That’s why we’ve taken the bold step of introducing Fresh Start programmes and expanded Limited Service Volunteers.

And I worry about the kids who are struggling with mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

This last group is the group I want to talk about today.

Mental health is a big issue for teenagers.

Around one in five will experience some form of mental health problem during this crucial time of their lives.

Teenagers and their parents often don’t understand what’s going wrong or what to do about it.

Even a mild mental illness can have a big impact on a young person’s life and on those around them.

In my time as Prime Minister I’ve seen the impact of youth mental illness all too often.

I’ve met teenagers suffering from depression who can’t see a path forward.

I’ve met gay and lesbian kids who are struggling with their sexuality and suffering from anxiety issues.

And I’ve met parents who have lost a child to suicide. These are good, everyday Kiwi parents.

When the worst happens and a teenager takes their own life, those left behind have a heavy burden to bear.

Our youth suicide rate is alarmingly high.

The collection of suicide data internationally is not perfect.

But on recorded data at least, the suicide rate for our young people is among the highest in the developed world.

Even if some countries are under-reporting suicide, the fact is that any young person taking their own life is one too many.

Tackling issues around youth mental health is complex and challenging, as I’m sure you’re all aware.

But that in itself is no reason for a government to avoid addressing the issues.
Not everything is up to the government, but I know that we can do better.

Our youth mental health system has many strengths, including a dedicated workforce doing some great and innovative work.

But it also has weaknesses.

It is not as well linked together as it could be and there are gaps that we have a
responsibility to fill.

By building on what we already do well, improving what we don’t do well, and trying new things, I believe we can make a difference.

I have personally driven a project across government to improve youth mental health services.

That work came out of a report that Sir Peter Gluckman did for me last year on youth transitions, which highlighted the risks facing young New Zealanders.

The focus of this cross-government project has been on secondary school age kids who have, or are at risk of having, mild to moderate mental illness.

So today I am delighted to announce a package of new initiatives.

The package draws together a number of different strands of government activity, and also calls on the private sector to give our young people a helping hand.

In short, we are going to get better at picking up when kids have mental health issues and then make it easier for them to access mental health services.

The Youth Mental Health package works in four different places:

  • In schools
  • Online
  • In families and communities
  • And in the health system.

Within each of these four areas there are a number of initiatives.

These are all set out in the background documents, but today I want to focus on a small number that I feel are particularly important.

First, let me begin with schools.

Schools help shape young people as they grow. And they are an effective way to reach kids with mental health issues.

So I want to better equip schools to identify students who have a mental illness and I want schools, in return, to take more responsibility for the wellbeing of their students.

Today I’m pleased to announce the Government will be investing a total of $18.6 million over the next four years to put more nurses, and specially trained youth workers, into low decile secondary schools across the country.

The nurses will provide youth development checks and refer students for treatment.

They’ll be well placed to pick up early on those kids who have a mental health issue.

And being based in schools, these nurses will be easily accessible for young people who might otherwise not go to see someone for help.

We already have nurses in decile one and two schools. This new funding will expand the scheme to decile three schools as well – taking the total number of school students who can access school-based nurses to 56,000.

We are deliberately focusing on lower decile schools because students from these communities typically have higher rates of mental health problems and may not access care as quickly as they need to.

Using youth workers in this context is a new approach. They will be put into selected low decile secondary schools and they’ll be trained in working with young people with mental health issues. They will have particular focus on kids who are at risk of dropping out of school.

Having youth workers alongside nurses in schools means there will be strong support teams who are able to identify mental health issues early on and help sort them out.

In addition, the Government is going to invest $12 million to expand the Positive Behaviour School-Wide programme into all secondary schools.

This is a programme that promotes a safe and supportive environment in schools, and addresses bullying amongst other things.

These are important factors when it comes to youth mental health.

Bullying can have a harmful and sometimes destructive effect on a student.

And a negative school environment can be very difficult for those kids who are at risk of, or who are suffering from, mental health issues.

The Positive Behaviour School-Wide programme is already in almost 300 schools and early results show a decline in major behaviour problems.

Schools with the programme are reporting their environment is calmer and more settled.

Students themselves are saying they think the behaviour of all students is changing for the better in these schools.

So I think it shows great promise.

The final thing I want to say about schools is that the Government is going to check up on schools, through the Education Review Office, to see whether they are making progress on the wellbeing of their students.

Over time, school boards should be able to show improvements in the school environment, such as decreases in bullying.

I want to see our young people in schools that offer a safe and supportive environment. And I want schools to be well equipped to identify and help young people with mental illness.

I’d now like to move to the second of the four areas my Youth Mental Health package addresses – the online world.

The world our young people live in today is vastly different to what it was a generation ago.

Technology has evolved rapidly and today the internet is a second home for teenagers.

Facebook, Twitter and Smartphones are now the media many of them use to look for information or help.

Government services need to evolve rapidly too.

As a government we have to lift our game and keep up with these kids if we are going to reach the ones who need help.

So we are going to significantly modernise our approach.

First, government agencies are going to overhaul the mental health-related resources they produce to ensure they are youth-friendly and technologically up to date.

They will look at using new technology, such as Facebook and online pop-ups, to reach young people.

We are going to invest $2.7 million to provide E-therapy specifically tailored for young people.

E-therapy is computer-administered therapy which can be carried out at home.

It has been shown to be an effective treatment option and it offers real potential to reach isolated young people with mental health issues.

We are also going to set up a new Social Media Innovations Fund.

The Fund will support providers of youth services to better use social media to help young people with mental health problems.

It may, for example, help providers advance their use of smartphone apps and Facebook-related programmes.

The Social Media Innovations Fund will be a public-private partnership.

I want to see the private sector and philanthropists step up to help fund these innovative ideas and technological upgrades.

I’m sure there are some great ideas out there that haven’t yet been adopted. And I know there are very worthy organisations helping young people who would welcome some help.

As an example of what technology can do, Youthline made free text messages available to kids in 2007. In just over two years they went from receiving 150 texts a month to 20,000 a month.

It’s this kind of rapid change that I want to help providers keep on top of.

The fact is we all have a stake in the future of the young people who will one day fill our shoes.

So I hope the Fund receives generous support when it is set up.

I’d now like to briefly touch on the third area the Youth Mental Health package addresses, which is families and communities.

Parents, families and friends have a big role to play in identifying mental health issues in young people and helping them do something about it.

When parents, families and friends become concerned about someone they are close to, they need good access to authoritative information.

Information which helps them work out whether something is normal adolescent behaviour or a mental health problem.

Parents are telling us that they don’t feel they have ready access to that information.

So, we are going to fund non-government organisations to get that information out to parents, families and friends.

In recognition of the unique role families can play in helping mentally ill young people, we are also going to test a Whanau Ora initiative.

Maori and Pacific youth have higher rates of mental illness and the services available aren’t always working well for these groups.

So we are going to try something new.

Two Whanau Ora providers with mental health expertise will be contracted to work intensively with 40 Maori and Pacific 12-19 year olds and their whanau or aiga over a two-year period.

By doing this, we can see whether Whanau Ora’s focus on a whole family rather than an individual delivers better results for Maori and Pacific kids with mental illness.

Finally today, I’d like to touch on the last area where we are making changes: the health sector.

When a young person with mental illness takes the crucial step of seeking help within the health system, it’s important we deliver high quality and timely care.

So I’m delighted today to announce four new steps.

Number one, we will be putting an additional $11.3 million into primary mental health care and expanding the group that this money can be used for. That means more young people will benefit.

Number two, we are making changes to the way that Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services work, in the areas of wait-times and post-discharge follow-ups.

There is a lot of good work being done in this area by dedicated professionals.

However, it is taking too long for some mentally-ill young people to get help. And when they do, their follow-up care is not always as good as it should be.

We are going to ensure that in the future a single provider is identified to provide follow-up care for these young people.

And we are going to put new targets in place to reduce waiting times.

There are also other places in our youth mental health system where handovers aren’t working well.

So we are going to review how referrals are working across the system to see where improvements can be made.

Number three, we are going to provide some time-limited funding for existing Youth One Stop Shops.

These are community-based centres which cater for a wide range of youth needs.

They operate independently and have a fragile funding model.

This one-off funding will help support them while the Ministry of Health completes work on how primary care in general can be made more youth-friendly.

I’d like to acknowledge here the work of United Future leader Peter Dunne, who made Youth One Stop Shops part of his Confidence and Supply Agreement with the National Party.

Peter is also busy driving work through in the youth suicide area and I am pleased to have his support for this package today.

And finally, number four, we will be reviewing Government-funded drug and alcohol education programmes for youth.

Drugs and alcohol play a very important role in youth mental health.

As a Government we are dealing with access to alcohol issues through the Alcohol Reform Bill now before Parliament.

But we want to make sure that the education programmes we are funding are actually having a positive effect on young people.

I am concerned that they may be of mixed quality and effectiveness. So this review will find out if we need to make changes.


Ladies and gentlemen, there are more initiatives than these in the Youth Mental Health package.

The details of all of them are available online.

I encourage you to have a look at what I believe is a well-balanced set of initiatives which have the potential to make a real difference.

They are an important first step.

They fill gaps in what we’re doing now and complement the great work that’s already being done in this sector.

To make sure that we are on the right track I have directed that these initiatives be reviewed after two years.

Because I’m interested in what works – and our young people need us to get this right.

I can assure you that the Ministers in charge of these initiatives will be working hard to drive them forward - and I will be keeping a close eye on progress.

I’d like to thank those Ministers today for their efforts in bringing this package together – Health Minister Tony Ryall, Education Minister Hekia Parata, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett and Whānau Ora Minister Tariana Turia.

And I’d like to thank the many officials and experts who have put so many hours into this project to date.

Ladies and gentlemen, the package I have announced today builds on existing programmes and tries new things.

It addresses gaps in the system and modernises the way we reach young people.

It increases funding for youth mental illness and tackles the problem on a wide variety of fronts.

Most of all, it sends a strong message to young New Zealanders: We value you and we will help you to succeed.

It’s been a pleasure to speak with you today.

Like all of you in this room, my hope is that this package makes a real difference for our young people.

  • John Key
  • Prime Minister