Mental health workers claim decent pay

Mental health care is a real and growing problem for the National Government and for New Zealand Society.

There was a major move from institutional mental health care late last century.

It was correctly decided that many people with mental health problems could be better cared for in the community. The problem is that proper community care has never been adequate. And the problems seem to be getting worse.

Part of the problem is the shortage of resources, mainly mental health staffing levels. It is a demanding and sometimes very stressful field of work, and community care pay rates have been pathetic.

Aged care and supporter workers campaigned for and eventually won a significant pay rise, due to take effect next month.  They succeeded through the courts by proving that  their workers were underpaid because the majority were female.

Mental health care workers are trying to do the same.

RNZ: Mental health workers lodge equal pay claim

Christchurch mental health support worker Vicki Harmon works for Pukeko Blue, an organisation which provides community care for those with mental health needs.

She works at one of the 12 residential homes in the city, which provide 24-7 care for seven residents.

It’s tough and demanding work, for which Ms Harmon is paid $16.50 an hour – 75 cents an hour more than the minimum wage.

One of her clients is a woman with an intellectual disability who has spent the last six weeks in the grip of mental illness, something she describes as “exhausting” and “very demanding”.

“Having somebody with a dual diagnosis – an intellectual disability and mental health – means that you are constantly aware of their mental state, not just their intellectual disability, that’s the same every day.

“But you need to be aware of their mental state, it can go up in two days and then it will come back down in two days. You’ve go to be vigilant all the time,” she said.

Auckland mental health worker Pollyanna Alo agreed the job could be challenging.

“There have been occasions where I have been spat on, verbally abused, even had a knife thrown at me,” she said.

Both women are among the 3000 to 4000 community mental health support workers who were left out of the historic pay equity claim for care and support workers, because the government wouldn’t include them.

While they have similar experience, qualifications and responsibilities to their colleagues in the disability support and aged care sector, in a fortnight’s time they can expect to be paid about $6 – $7 less an hour.

Today, two of the country’s largest unions – E tū and the Public Service Association – will lodge an equal pay claim with the Employment Relations Authority.

E tū’s assistant national secretary John Ryall said this was the third group left out of the historic settlement and is similar to a group of workers employed in vocational services with the Ministry of Social Development, which the union is also negotiating.

Mr Ryall said the government needed to support this claim and move swiftly to avoid the impending crisis.

“If the authority decides that, then the government as the funder of the sector needs to either pay the money or watch these places shut.

“We think the job these people do is so important, that it’s important the government gets involved in it,” he said.

Ms Alo said reducing the number of mental health workers would place more stress on district health boards, which were already struggling.

It was inevitable that other sectors would try to benefit from the success of the Care and Support workers.

The problems facing mental health care are probably greater. Pay rates need to be raised, but more workers are also required to deal with the growing demand.

More funding was made available in last month’s budget but it was criticised as not enough.

Stuff:  Frustration, disappointment over health funding in Budget 2017

Patients and healthcare workers say they have been left frustrated and disappointed by “inadequate” funding for health in the 2017 Budget.

They said the Government’s announcements on Thursday would not go nearly far enough in addressing concerns about overworked staff, access to new medicines, and access to mental health treatment.

The Government said total health spending would be a record $16.77 billion in 2017/18 – an increase of $879 million, with an overall increase of $3.9b over the next four years.

There are growing demands right across the health sector. On mental health:

The government committed $224m in funding for mental health in this year’s Budget.

That includes $100m for a new cross-government social investment fund that will “target innovative new proposals to tackle mental health issues”.

A further $100m will go to District Health Boards to support local mental health and addiction services, with funding also earmarked for Maori suicide prevention.

Mental Health Foundation spokesperson Sophia Graham welcomed the funding announcement as a “really positive step in the right direction”.

“It seems like a lot of money, but we need to see a commitment to sustained increases in funding,” she said.

Meanwhile, mental health workers and union representatives said the funding was only a fraction of what was needed to adequately respond to demand.

Social worker Andy Colwell said he expected to see the gap between demand and funding get even worse as a result of Budget 2017.

“As a mental health worker, seeing families struggling with life-threatening situations not being seen as urgent is incredibly frustrating, and knowing it will get worse is incredibly distressing,” Colwell said.

“It’s critically important to look at how the money is spent, and make sure we don’t just keep doing the same things that don’t work.”

Graham said key measures for success would be a reduction in the number of suicides, and a reduction in the number of people presenting critically ill at mental health units.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman acknowledged there had been an increase in demand for mental health and addiction services in recent years.

“Cabinet will soon consider a new mental health and addiction strategy, which will include our new approach to dealing with mental health issues,” he said.

Mental health was covered on Sunday last night: Trouble in mind

Has a mental health crisis put our police under siege? Police officers say the number of emergency callouts for mental health related emergencies is skyrocketing. And they are struggling to cope. Police officers, patient advocates and a frightened family affected speak out.

Coleman wouldn’t comment for that programme but said he was taking a proposal to Cabinet soon. At least with an election looking there may be some urgency.