Kiwis’ mental health crumbling under government lockdowns

New research suggests more priority needs to be given to support the health of New Zealanders struggling with mental illness during covid-19 lockdowns – with findings showing many people with mental health histories struggle and are disproportionately affected.

A University of Otago study measured the psychological distress, anxiety, wellbeing and suicidality of around 600 Kiwis who’d been diagnosed with mental illness prior to last year’s covid-19 lockdown, comparing their experiences during lockdown to those with no prior diagnosed mental health illness.

Overall, 32 per cent (197) of those pre-diagnosed with a mental disorder reported their mental health had deteriorated noticeably during lockdown, while 50 per cent (316) said it had remained stable and 20 percent that it had improved.

Of concern, patients with an existing mental health diagnosis were at around twice the risk of reporting moderate to high psychological distress, anxiety and poor well-being during lockdown compared with those without a mental disorder. They were at three to four times the risk of having experienced suicidal thoughts and plans, respectively.

The group also reported poorer relationships with people and whānau in their ‘bubble’ and said they were more likely to feel lonely or isolated due to reduced social contacts (41 percent compared to 26 percent). They were also more likely to be concerned about their own health (25 per cent compared to 15 per cent) and the health of others (40 per cent versus 32 percent) and more likely to be worried about their finances (54 per cent versus 47 per cent).

Priority

Lead author Associate Professor Caroline Bell, of the University of Otago Christchurch’s Department of Psychological Medicine, says the results clearly show the health of New Zealanders with mental illness needs to be prioritised further during lockdowns.

“This study is the first we are aware of to examine the psychosocial outcomes of lockdown in New Zealand on those with a previous diagnosis of mental illness. The findings make it clear this more vulnerable group need more specifically-targeted support to address their needs. We now need to establish what further measures are required with the potential of further lockdowns to come, and what enhanced support structures we need to put in place.

Our findings emphasise too the importance of maintaining high levels of not just counselling and clinical support for these patients but social connections as well. Lockdown is a particular challenge for many with mental illness living in the community with the requirement they isolate at home. For many this means cutting off or limiting their social connections at a time when they’re sorely needed to maintain their taha hinengaro or mental health and wellbeing.”

Child and Youth Mortality Review

A separate study published by Auckland University of Technology reports that the latest data report from the Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee (CYMRC) shows there has been no reduction in mortality rates among children and young people (aged 28 days to 24 years), and Māori and Pacific communities carry a large burden.

CYMRC co-chair Dr Alayne Mikahere-Hall – a senior lecturer at the AUT School of Public Health and Interdisciplinary Studies, and research fellow at the AUT Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research – says 2666 babies, children, and young people died over the five-year period to 2019.

Many of these deaths were preventable. The most common causes of death were suicide, transport incidents, cancer, and sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI).

“It is unacceptable in this day and age that Māori babies are six times more likely to die from SUDI compared to non-Māori babies. Even more shocking is that Pacific babies are eight times more likely to die,” says Mikahere-Hall.

“While strong progress was made in reducing mortality rates of babies, children, and young people in the past, that momentum has been lost and mortality rates have remained stagnant over the past five years. We find this unacceptable.”

CYMRC co-chair Dr Matthew Reid (Medical Officer of Health at the Public Health Unit for Canterbury and the West Coast) says, current health and disability system reforms and the establishment of a new Māori Health Authority present real opportunities to address the structural changes that are needed, not only within the health system but in society.

“The Government’s commitment to a reformed health with a mandated priority to address inequities is timely. We know there are pockets of excellence across New Zealand where Māori and Pacific-led health services are making a real difference, and we urge new health agencies to support these and similar innovations,” says Reid.

Children and young people with the highest socioeconomic deprivation (NZDep Decile 10) are three times more likely to die than those with the least deprivation (NZDep Decile 1).

The Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee (CYMRC) is a statutory committee that is accountable to the Health Quality and Safety Commission. The CYMRC advises the Commission on how to reduce preventable deaths of children and young people in New Zealand.