26 Apr 2018

Concerns over mental health phone line

11:03 am on 26 April 2018

The government's mental health and addictions inquiry is launching in Palmerston North tomorrow but the contract for its 0800-number has not yet been finalised.

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Photo: 123rf.com

Some in the sector have questioned whether the staff behind the phone number will be adequately prepared to deal with distressed callers.

The six-person inquiry team, led by the former Health and Disability Commissioner Ron Paterson, will receive public submissions at meetings around the country. The phone number is intended to supplement in-person and written submissions to the panel, which is expected to report back to government by the end of October.

A website for the inquiry is planned to launch on Friday, with the phone number "from next week", a spokesman for the inquiry said.

The spokesman said the phone would be manned by a professional telehealth services provider. It is unclear which provider would have the contract as the Department of Internal Affairs was still confirming the details of the contract a day before the launch of the inquiry.

On Wednesday night a spokesman said details would be available "in the next day or two once it had been signed".

It would operate weekdays, 9.30am - 5.30pm, he said.

Executive director of suicide hotline Lifeline, Glenda Schnell, said whoever answered the calls should be trained to deal with people who could potentially be distressed.

"People who are calling up would be calling with ideas, but people would also be calling about their own stories and calling about things that haven't worked for them," she said.

"That's where things may sometimes trigger people, when they start relaying their stories and feeling that the feelings they had before are not being managed in the way they might have hoped for."

The spokesman for the inquiry said the panel was unable to provide therapeutic support for people.

"However, we recognise that there might be people who call that need support and the freephone will be staffed by experienced telehealth professionals. People who need support will be redirected to the relevant support agency. There will also be information about support agencies on our website."

The funding comes from the budget for the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, which is estimated at $6.521 million.

Ms Schnell said talking to vulnerable people required a certain level of empathy.

"It's not just necessarily the qualifications but it's also in relation to the personal qualities that that staff member has to be able to listen and manage those calls appropriately."

The inquiry will have a wide range of platforms for people to submit their views, including: online submissions through a website, by mail, and in person with panel members at various sessions around the country.

In an email to stakeholders on 6 April, the inquiry chair, Ron Paterson, said other platforms will include social media forums, as well as schools and other groups being invited to provide video or pictorial submissions.

The inquiry is launching tomorrow in Palmerston North and the first public meeting will be in Rotorua on 1 May.

A list of the towns that the panel will be visiting can be found on the DIA's website. The chair, Ron Paterson, will be paid $1400 a day and the remaining five members $975.

In a briefing to Minister of Health David Clark, a deputy chief policy officer at the Ministry of Health outlined the risks of establishing the Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry.

The risks included scenarios such as: "the inquiry takes too long", "the inquiry does not produce robust results and tangible recommendations and actions", and "managing conflicting sector and public expectations".

The officer said that due to the short space of time and broad scope and complexity of the inquiry "there is a risk that this timeframe will not be met".

The officer said typically government inquiries do not meet initial proposed timeframes for a range of reasons.

"Delays may incur criticism from the sector that the inquiry is taking too long and that more immediate outcomes are needed," she said.

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