Mental health is a big issue in Aotearoa New Zealand. A 2021 Stats NZ survey showed that over a quarter of New Zealanders struggled with their mental wellbeing – a number that increased 6% from 2018.
Like many areas around community resilience and wellbeing, it’s a multifaceted issue, and there’s no quick ‘fix’. What is crucial, however, is ensuring the voices of those affected are heard and listened to – especially in conversations about how best to support them. And around Aotearoa, there’s a number of councils working with their communities to do just this.
Stronger Waitaki, for instance, is an organisation that represents a network of over other 190 non-profits and organisations, focusing on issues present in the Waitaki district – including mental health, addictions and community violence. Through this network, these individual groups can come together discuss and identify community-wide problems, then figure out how to address these challenges together.
The council play a key role in Stronger Waitaki, facilitating the network and connecting all these organisations, ultimately ensuring that local issues get local solutions. “We use that collective intelligence, and a bottom-up, community-lead approach,” says Helen Algar, Community Development Manager of Stronger Waitaki.
A recent example involves the mental health of Waitaki’s tamariki and rangatahi. Through the network, they realised that multiple schools were working independently to find resources to help their students. So Stronger Waitaki organised a hui with various school principals, organisations and – crucially – the youth affected. Then, using this collective knowledge and strength, they developed a Child, Youth and Whanau Mental Wellbeing Strategy – working together to find a solution that helps everybody. “Collectively, we can identify what is the priority across all schools,” Helen says. “You get the evidence, and then you move forward to look collectively at a solution that will benefit everybody.”
To have an even stronger impact, Waitaki District Mayor Gary Kircher maintains that central government needs to place more trust in these networks. “They need to see that this is more than just a dozen counsellors or so sitting around the table,” he says. “This is actually just a part of a network that goes much more broadly.”
He notes that if more funding came directly to the council, working alongside a network like Stronger Waitaki and all the local mental health services that includes, then things could happen more quickly. “We have the ability to make much more nimble decisions. We can go, 'Here's the problem. Here's the solution. Let's put some money that we're getting into that, and let's sort the problem out before it becomes worse than it needs to be,” Gary says. “So we won't have young people waiting months for a mental health counselling session, which can sometimes come too late.”
A huge part of councils’ work centres around wellbeing, and examples like this show why taking a localist approach is so key in these areas. Over the next few years, we hope to see many more as we work with councils to Choose Localism – and prove to central government why it’s crucial they support and enable it.
After all, localism is all about community-driven mahi, and getting voices of those affected to be part of working through solutions – something all too important when it comes to mental health.