You’ve been living under a rock if you haven’t heard about Mike King and Gumboot Friday, but what about Lifeline, or Surfing for Farmers? 

I’m a firm believer that the government isn’t always the best at everything, and I can confidently say it’s not the best or even the fastest at mental health support, but what about the NGO?

A Non-Government Organisation (NGO) is a non-profit service set up to offer support that the health system either does not offer or has insufficient capacity to meet the demand. As a result, the NGO will often become a member of a network that receives government funding annually, effectively becoming a partner of, or supplier to, the Ministry of Health. But not always.

When an NGO is funded by the government, it then works like any other public health service, where you go to your doctor and then get referred. The trouble is, you have to go to the doctor first, or in many cases with mental health, the hospital. Obviously, the referral system always creates delays and bottlenecks, which is the last thing you want in a mental health environment.

In New Zealand, we group together ‘Mental Health’ and ‘Addiction’ (MHA), and according to Platform Trust, together there are 240 MHA NGO’s. Seems like a lot but they’re not all big, and the funding isn’t increasing either. What is increasing, is the number of Kiwis needing MHA support (showing no sign of slowing), along with the wait time. 

So, if it’s not always quick (funded) and not always cheap (unfunded), then why is an NGO good? They respond to demand. As with anything started privately, they exist to meet a need, and will evolve or grow with the changing environment, something the public health system doesn’t do. 

Statistically, up to 50% of our MHA NGOs exist to serve the Māori and Pasifika communities, which is good given our suicide statistics suggest that Māori, specifically young male Māori, are more likely to commit suicide than any other age, gender, or ethnicity. That statistic doesn’t include those who attempt to take their own lives either.

Our funded NGOs don’t just service the public through a GP referral, they also reach us through secondary care like Oranga Tamariki, Corrections, and Ministry of Social Development. The delivery of MHA support should be happening more in our community and less in our hospitals. 

Unfortunately for all New Zealanders dealing with MHA, the NGO system operates in an overcomplicated environment. There’s a major lack of funding; if they are funded, the contracts are all short term, the system is fragmented, the demand is increasing, making the referral bottleneck worse, and on top of all that, the elephant in the room, the contract/funding environment is competitive.

Enter Gumboot Friday, who is just a non-profit, standing in front of a government, asking them for funding. 

Gumboot Friday is one donation away from not being able to provide support from one day to the next, support that is crucial to Kiwis and their families. While government funding can be the vital ingredient to being able to provide a reliable service to a community that needs it, it can also stand in the way of it delivering timely help to those in need. 

The problem is, when you need professional support or simply just support, it’s usually pretty hard to find. The system isn’t designed to come to us; it’s designed for us to come to it. And most of the time, we keep our troubles to ourselves until it’s too late. We don’t talk about our mental health enough, and we definitely don’t talk about the best counsellors, or the best place to go when times are tough, our ‘tough guy’ approach means we barely talk to our friends. 

Let’s focus for a moment on a key difference between our NGOs – proactive and reactive. 

I AM HOPE, better known as Gumboot Friday, is a charity that focuses on the mental health of youth aged 5 to 24 years old. The service aims to provide free weekly counselling sessions for those in need. Most importantly, Mike King and his team reach out. They visit schools, they talk about mental health, and they share stories. Last year they reached 250,000 students. 

Proactive organisations like Gumboot Friday and Surfing for Farmers use a preventative approach. Surfing for Farmers is pretty simple. They get farmers out of the paddock and into the ocean. The entire idea behind it is to de-stress, have some saltwater therapy, and enjoy life outside the farm. Our farming community has statistically poor mental health and suicide rate comparative to other industries. That comes down to isolation and the fact that your work is your life, and there is little balance. A charity that aims to get people off the farm and de-stressed, can be just as good as offering a counselling session, especially if it helps keep farmers in good mental health rather than just supporting them when they have bad mental health. 

Let’s look at the reactive approach. We have a health system that is focused on curing illness, not maintaining health. So many of our NGOs are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, offering a place of refuge or a crisis helpline. Lifeline is literally just that. While it’s important to have a place to go or a person to call in our darkest times, we also need to work harder to ensure less people get that far. 

What if we turned our system upside down, and spent more of our funding on preventing illness, be it physical or mental? Educating Kiwis about where to go and how to get help, so they don’t think taking their life is the only way out of how they’re feeling. Better yet, talk about how to keep ourselves well, and look after our mental health. We typically look for help when we have no other options. If we looked for mental wellbeing classes like we look for yoga classes, we might be as fit in mind as we are in body. 

Finding help 

Before I started looking into mental health services, I thought I had a good idea of who was out there. Privately, I knew that you could look up professional services and book an appointment. Here, the user pays, and the biggest challenge seems to be finding the right fit, or the right price. The public system, like anything public, I thought would be dependent on seeing a GP or doctor, being referred, and potentially waiting a long time, I wasn’t wrong. 

The third path was where I thought the NGOs sat. Somewhere in the middle. Possibly publicly funded, but privately accessible, and always available. Not quite true. Unfortunately, most of our NGOs, if you can find them, are as hard to access as a university scholarship. 

Let’s talk about how to find help, which is where things get tricky and might need a diagram. 

If you’re a university or polytech student, it’s likely you can get free counselling through student services. I used this option when I was studying, and not enough people talk about it. 

If you’re not a student, but you’re employed, talk to your employer, it’s likely they’ll have an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) service, where you can be referred to a counsellor. 

If you’re not employed, or your employer doesn’t have an EAP service, you have two options. If you’re prepared to wait, you can talk to your GP and get a referral – this will likely be subsidised or free. If you can’t wait, and you’re under the age of 24, visit iamhope.org.nz. If you’re over the age of 24, visit lifeline.org.nz

The thing is, mental health isn’t just suicide prevention, and we’re only just starting to understand the breadth of mental health and wellness. I would love to tell you how to find more organisations like Surfing for Farmers. Organisations that prevent the need to seek crisis support are few and far between, and sadly, are more likely found in apps and downloadable PDFs than in gyms or community classes. 

So, if anyone feels inspired to start something, what about Knitting for Cops, Jigsaws for Dentists, or Yoga for Builders? Don’t wait for illness, let’s start with wellness. 

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