Media release: Coordinated action required to meet young people’s mental health needs: Auditor-General

15 February 2024: The Auditor-General has looked at how well government agencies work together to understand and meet the mental health needs of young people aged 12-24.

A more youth-focused, integrated, and coherent system of care is required to meet young people's mental health needs, says the Auditor-General in a new report.

“Mental health concerns are the biggest health issue facing young New Zealanders today,” says Auditor-General John Ryan. “However, we found that many young people cannot get mental health support when they need it. In a country that prides itself on being a good place to bring up children and young people, this is a matter we should all be concerned about.”

Young people report the highest level of unmet need for mental health care of any age group. Early and effective support can help to reduce the lifelong human and economic costs of mental illness for individuals, whānau, and society.

The Auditor-General’s work focused on how well government agencies understand and work together to meet the mental health needs of young people aged 12 to 24 years.

Young people were one of the groups targeted by the previous Government’s multi-agency investment of $1.9 billion of new spending over four years into mental health and well-being through the 2019 Wellbeing Budget.

The audit found that the 2019 funding of new youth-specific primary mental health and addiction services is making a difference, with about 3,000 young people accessing these services each month. In time, this increased investment in primary care might relieve demand for more specialised services. However, in the meantime, young people in need of specialist support are waiting longer to access specialist care than when the Wellbeing Budget was released.

To create a more coherent and integrated youth mental health system, agencies need to work together better.

“Despite the best intentions and efforts of the many people working in mental health and addiction services, agencies remain too focused on their own programmes or services,” says Mr Ryan. “This comes at the expense of working together to ensure that young people can access consistent and integrated care as they enter, move through, and leave the care of services.”

Services and support should also be tailored to meet young people’s needs.

“Young people are often expected to fit into services and models of care designed for older adults,” says Mr Ryan. “Many barriers young people experience in accessing mental health support can be overcome if services and supports are tailored to their specific needs.

“Meeting their needs also means involving young people more in the design and delivery of mental health services.”

The report identifies a need for urgent action to develop a national mental health and addiction workforce plan.

“My staff were impressed by the care and dedication of those in the mental health and addiction workforce, who work hard to support young people,” says Mr Ryan. “However, they are also a workforce under considerable strain due to capacity pressures across the sector.

“Sustained effort will be needed to fill workforce gaps by increasing the local education and training pipelines for new and existing types of mental health and addiction practitioner.”

The audit also found that agencies need better information about the extent and distribution of young peoples’ mental health needs to effectively target services and spending.

The report makes nine recommendations designed to support a coherent system of mental health services where all young people can access appropriate and consistent care when and where they need it.

Young peoples’ mental health and well-being is an ongoing focus for the Office. The Auditor-General will closely monitor government agencies’ work in this area, including following up on the report's recommendations.