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Health Minister rejects 'conspiracy theory' that mental health report edited to make Govt look better

Health Minister Andrew Little has rejected the idea a mental health report edited data to make the Government's work in the sector look better, calling it a "conspiracy theory".

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The Health Minister responded to criticism after an annual report into mental health had removed indicators, including suicide rates and wait-times. Source: Breakfast

It comes after Stuff revealed many indicators usually included in a routine annual report of the Government's mental health services had been removed after a months-long and contentious editing process revealed in an Official Information Act request, including wait-times, suicide stats and the overall proportion of the population using specialised mental health services.

A series of behind-the-scenes emails showed indicators being removed, including one email which said, "I would prefer that suicide data is not included," and another saying "remove 685", which is the total number of suicides in New Zealand during the 2018-19 year.

The Ministry of Health told Stuff it was trying to modernise the way it presents data, not hide anything.

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Mental Health Foundation's Shaun Robinson says there should have been more data in the Ministry of Health's annual mental health report, not information removed. Source: Breakfast

However, Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson this morning told Breakfast there should have been more data in the Ministry of Health's annual mental health report, not information removed.

"I think it is either a very bad mistake or it's a bad judgement call or it's a deliberate attempt to kind of make things look better than they are. Either way it's not good," he said.

"If it's just a cock up and they chose not to put the statistics in the routine report for silly reason, well that's really bad for transparency for us being able to see what's been happening year-on-year.

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"I kind of just don't really see the logic in what they were doing and unfortunately the emails do paint a bit of a picture of trying to sort of minimise the bad news that was going out."

Yesterday on Breakfast, National leader Judith Collins also slammed the reporting as "deceitful" and "extremely cruel", and said she intended to lay a complaint with the Public Services Commission.

"There was clearly an argument going on within the top echelons, the Ministry of Health, about whether or not some statistics should be reported on, such as suicide statistics and wait times, because they were apparently negative," she said.

"Well, yes, it is negative - that's why it needed to be reported on and we can't fix problems if we don't know the extent of them."

Communications within the ministry, which were sent to Stuff after an OIA request, revealed conversations of making the report "much shorter".

Ministry of Health communications boss Kate Clark argued that wider suicide data should be removed as the new Suicide Prevention Office would report on that, adding that there was "a lot of information that doesn't need to be included" in the 2019 report.

"I would suggest we could do something considerably different [and much shorter]," she said.

However, Little this morning on Breakfast rejected the idea the report was sanistising facts.

"When you're talking about a report in 2021, talking about what's happening in 2018 and 2019 and you have a whole heap of other data sources, the coroner's annual report on suicide statistics for example, the National Service Framework which is publicly available online database of a whole heap of health statistics.

"It's pretty hard to conceal stuff so I don't get the conspiracy theory that there was somehow a sanitisation," he said.

"When you talk about this particular report, this is a report from the office of the director of mental health and addiction services, this is the guy at the top of the health system responsible for mental health and addiction services, this is his report.

"This report historically has an interesting sort of background. It's not a statutory requirement, it was the auditory general in the early 2000s who said, 'We really ought to know what's happening under the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act, please do some reporting on that.' So this sort of came out.

"It usually is very, very late based in terms of the period that it's reporting on, it's gone a little later," Little admitted, after more than a year wait.

However, he stood by the Government's work in mental health after years of underinvestment from previous governments.

"We've got to do things differently too so we're trying out stuff. Now we don't stand on the rooftops and say, 'Look, we're trying something different,' because actually you're dealing with vulnerable people.

"So we are trying stuff that's new, we are trying stuff that's different. When we're confident that it's working we'll talk about it but we want to take time to get this right.

"We're trying to change dramatically what we do and the way we do it because what we've done in the past, it clearly hasn't been working."