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Unified approach needed to turn around 'pandemic of psychological distress' among NZ youth - expert

The Government's response to New Zealand's youth mental health crisis should start from the "beginning of life," according to an expert.

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Koi Tū member Professor Richie Poulton called for a unified political response. Source: Breakfast

It comes after the paper Youth Mental Health in Aotearoa New Zealand: Greater Urgency Required, released this morning, revealed a "pandemic of psychological distress" among teenagers, with nearly a quarter reporting symptoms of depression within the last year - almost twice as many as in 2012. 

Meanwhile, six per cent of students reported attempting suicide in the last 12 months, 7.3 per cent of females and five per cent of males.

Source: TVNZ

More than half of LGBT youth reported symptoms of depression.

Think tank Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures associate member Professor Richie Poulton, one of the paper's authors, told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning that adolescents' mental health and wellbeing has "worsened considerably over the last 10 years, and that's before Covid."

"It's understandable that Covid is dominating people's attention right now, but they need to prioritise mental wellbeing of the young people as much, if not more than, the Covid virus."

Prof Poulton said the World Health Organization estimates around 20 per cent of the 1.2 billion adolescents in the world right now have "sub-optimal mental health," which he called "the wellspring from which all the mental problems for adults comes."

"You've got to nip it in the bud."

In his report, Prof Poulton said the risk of mental health concerns, addiction and suicide are much higher for youths belonging to disadvantaged populations and marginalised communities.

He said while the Government and the Ministry of Health is "trying its very best," it's "not the right or sole response."

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He instead called for a response "across government" and "from the beginning of life."

Prof Poulton said a stressed mother has babies with "poor emotion regulation capacities," which is "the forerunner for the underlying vulnerability of developing poor mental and self-control."

He called for a cross-government and cross-industry response with age-appropriate interventions "across the whole system."

"It's not just mental health people in the Ministry of Health that are responsible here, it's got to be the education system, in the early childhood education sector, for example.

"You can teach children emotion regulation through fun activities, games. If you have the will and the commitment and foresight and a capacity to implement - not just do things in a piecemeal fashion - the whole system has to cooperate."

Prof Poulton said the community, too, must also lead by "demanding equal partnership, resources and support," as well as for the Government "to buy into that partnership."

"It requires true cooperation and you've seen flashes of that ... let's not go back to the usual business because that's not going to help anyone.

"It's not an easy thing, but we know what the solution is, and then we need the true commitment and grit and persistence and ability to face the truth when things aren't working ... lean in to the challenge."