The invisible youth4 min read

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For years, mental health and wellbeing has been the political hot potato that no one wanted to talk about. With the subject squarely on the agenda,CCS Disability Action’s National Policy Analyst, Phoebe Eden-Mann reflects on Mental Wellbeing and Disability.

Nearly half of our population will have a diagnosable mental illness at some point during their lives, and 25% will struggle with mental wellbeing in any given year. New Zealand also has staggeringly high suicide rates, in June 2017-June 2018, there were 668 victims of suicide. So, when the current Government announced that they were going to tackle our country’s mental wellbeing issues, it seemed like cause to celebrate. And it was, to an extent.

When writing our submission on the upcoming Government Budget (which the government is calling a “Wellbeing Budget”), I was struck by Priority 5. which states “Supporting mental wellbeing for all New Zealanders, with a special focus on under 24-year-olds”. (The Budget Policy Statement and the complete list of priorities can be found here). Overall, this priority is great, especially the focus on young people, as most cases of serious mental health issues become apparent before the age of 24. But what is concerning in this priority is the lack of mention of disabled people and their mental health.

What is often missed in discussions surrounding mental wellbeing is the link between disability and mental health. Disabled people are left out of the mental wellbeing discussion, despite there being significant evidence that disabled people are at increased risk of poor mental wellbeing outcomes. Young people with disabilities are at particular risk, being three times more likely to develop a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, compared to their non-disabled peers. Young people with learning disabilities are six times more likely to develop a diagnosable disorder than their peers who do not have learning disabilities. In the Treasury ‘Youth at Risk’ paper, 35% of teenagers on the Supported Living Payment or who use learning support services will use mental health services. 43% of young people aged 20 to 24 on the Supported Living Payment will use mental health services. Yet, too often disability and mental wellbeing are absent from wider discussions.

Whilst disability does not necessarily cause poor mental health, because of the barriers and disadvantage disabled people face, it can increase the risk of people experiencing mental health conditions, the Government must address this. Young people who have disabilities can be more vulnerable than others, and traumatic events are more likely to trigger mental health problems than for non-disabled young people. Mental wellbeing can be negatively affected for people who have greater support needs, especially if there are communication barriers. As a result, the mental wellbeing of those who have high and complex needs may be overlooked; it can be easy to miss the signs of poor mental wellbeing of people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. Children and young people with disabilities can be seen as being ‘different’, which can lead to exclusion and social isolation. Exclusion and social isolation are significant contributors to poor mental wellbeing, with some studies showing that 85% of disabled children and young people have been bullied or teased as a result of their disability.

The statistics do not make for cheerful reading. But arguably what is worse is that disabled young people are consistently failed by omission in our mental health system; “The lack of systemic action from the Government to address the disparities in access to healthcare and poor health outcomes experienced by people with intellectual disabilities is a national disgrace,” says IHC Director of Advocacy, Trish Grant. This is evident in Priority 5. of the Wellbeing Budget; despite all of the evidence that disabled young people are significantly more likely to have poor mental wellbeing compared to their non-disabled peers, there is no mention of disabled young people in either the priorities or the wellbeing outlook analysis. This is despite the Government including ethnicity in its analysis of mental health and outcomes for youth. It is important to include analysis of ethnic inequalities, but why is disability missing. The data is now available through the General Social Survey and Household Labour Force Survey so there is no excuse anymore.

So while the Wellbeing Budget is a step in the right direction when it comes to improving overall outcomes for all New Zealanders, there are some big issues that need to be addressed if it is to be truly effective. The drive to improve mental wellbeing is something that we should all be aware and supportive of; but if we aren’t cognisant of the links between mental wellbeing and disability, we run the risk of people falling through the cracks. Any initiative that is implemented to tackle mental wellbeing must be accessible to all, and preferably designed with disabled people, not simply designed about them. Disabled young people are at particularly high risk of poor mental wellbeing, and should be supported and able to access a variety of support networks that are designed specifically to meet their needs.

Being a young person is hard enough without being falling through the cracks of a poorly designed system. They deserve better. We can do better.