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Mental Health Foundation boss accuses official of trying to silence his criticism of Government

The Mental Health Foundation's boss is accusing a Ministry of Health official of trying to silence him after he criticised the Government's lack of work on mental health reforms.

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Chief executive Shaun Robinson says there’s “no plan” two years on from the inquiry into mental health and addiction. Source: Breakfast

The claim from the Government-funded charity’s CEO Shaun Robinson came after the release of a media statement last week. In it, the charity revealed that research it had commissioned showed 25 per cent of New Zealand adults had “poor wellbeing”.

Robinson said about two hours after the media statement, he was called by a Ministry of Health official saying he breached the “no surprises” policy of the foundation’s funding contract with them, and that accepting ministry money meant he wasn’t able to criticise the Government. 

“We were pretty shocked at that,” Robinson told Breakfast. 

“How are we going to make progress on these mental health issues if we can’t have a decent public debate and the Government is too afraid to be accountable to charities and community organisations?”

Following Stuff’s reporting of the incident yesterday, the Ministry of Health said “recollections of the conversation that took place are quite different” and that it did not believe Robinson provided “an accurate reflection of comments made or the intent of the conversation”.

But Robinson said he did give the Ministry of Health a heads-up before the media release, and that it was “very convenient” they had forgotten about it. 

In the media release, Robinson accused the Government of dragging its feet in taking action on He Ara Oranga, a national inquiry into mental health and addiction published in 2018. At the time, the Government said it accepted, accepted in principle or would further consider 38 of the 40 recommendations made by the inquiry panel. 

“The cold reality is that things at the coal face of mental health have not changed for many New Zealanders since He Ara Oranga was first published,” Robinson said in the release. 

“Our most vulnerable people are still waiting, and more people are tipping into that vulnerable category. That is not acceptable.”

He repeated the criticisms this morning, saying two years on there was still “no plan” and “no monitoring” from the Government of the recommendations. 

“They’re cherry picking pieces, which is exactly what the inquiry told them not to do.”

He said there was an “implication” that the charity would lose its ministry funding if it continued criticising the Government. 

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Jacinda Ardern says it's Shaun Robinson's job to be a mental health advocate, after he accused Government officials of trying to silence him. Source: Breakfast

The Mental Health Foundation’s contract with the Ministry of Health is up for renewal this year. The charity gets half of its income from the Government and the remaining from the community. 

Regardless, Robinson said the Mental Health Foundation would continue saying what it wanted to.

“We’re here for the community … you do not own us,” he said to the ministry. 

“We want to be constructive … we’re not just here to beat them up.”

Jacinda Ardern, who appeared on Breakfast after Robinson, disagreed with him and said “of course” there was a mental health plan. 

She said the Government had invested $1 billion in its four-year mental health programme, and new services and new specialists were on the way. 

“I absolutely accept it is taking us time, but we always knew that it was a four-year programme.”

Responding to Robinson’s accusation that he had been silenced by a ministry official, Ardern said: “He’s absolutely entitled to make those comments and I do see them as part of his job. He should be able to and should speak freely.”