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May 6, 2019 | by  | in News Splash | [ssba]

Chlöe Swarbrick – Piki Interview

What is Piki, in your words?

It is a pilot project for 18- to 25-year-olds in providing a range of different ways they can access mental health services. It ranges from peer support programs, through to an app, through to higher-level counselling. It’s currently in Porirua, but it will be rolled out through the Greater Wellington region.


What’s your part in it?

I am the Greens mental health spokesperson. And, I guess by virtue of talking about my history of mental health, I’ve become quite a vocal advocate for these services. My role in the day-to-day delivery and the government side of things is working actively with the Government Minister for Health (who holds the portfolio for mental health), which is Dr David Clark, but also actively working with Associate Minister and Green MP Julie Anne Genter.


What does the bigger picture look like?

The bigger picture, as far as I’m concerned, is actually delivering […] free and timely mental health services for everybody in this country under the age of 25. This is an actionable deliverable. That’s the first step towards getting there.


You’ve got quite a few portfolios. How do those intersect with your work in mental health?

I’ve also got open and accessible governance, local government education, and drug law reform, alongside small business, and a few others. I spoke in my maiden speech about how I think the mental health crisis is the pointy end of decades of austerity. It’s the pointy end of an economic system and a society that individualises and isolates and traumatises people. I think we’re never actually going to solve that mental health crisis, unless we look into the systemic reasons as to why so many people are presenting with mental ill health.


Mental health services are really critical for servicing people who are currently suffering with mental ill health. But I think we need to investigate why so many people are beginning to present with those issues. If you look at the overwhelming contemporary evidence and research that’s coming out—even if you have an underlying biological susceptibility towards mental ill health or abuse or dependency—those kinds of underlying factors can be exacerbated or minimised by your environmental surroundings.


When I say environment, it’s not just greenery—it’s whether you are living in poverty, or in a [state of] hopelessness, whether you are living in connection with other people, whether you are living in security or precariousness. Whether you feel like you have a meaningful job and are contributing to the world, or just going paycheck to paycheck and trying to figure it all out… Whether you have a sense of identity and self-worth—all of those kinds of things.


That’s where I think it intersects with my other portfolios like education, and open and accessible government.


You’re also the drugs spokesperson. You’ve mentioned mental health in relation to drugs in terms of, like, where tax money from legal weed might go.

That’s a very light discussion which is on the table. I do prefer to keep them separate because when you start talking about mental health outcomes and then you talk about—for example—the cannabis referendum, there is often an attempt to say that you can’t hold both of those two things in tandem. But I do hold them in tandem, because at the end of the day, the people I know who have experienced adverse outcomes as a result of consuming cannabis have done so in an illicit market and they have done so because they haven’t known the doses or what they’re consuming. They haven’t been able to access help for fear of being prosecuted. They haven’t necessarily known what’s happening with them, because they’ve been educated in that way. And a whole raft of effects of those mental health services haven’t been there.


When you talk about legalising, what I’m actually talking about is regulation and control—the exact opposite of liberalisation and access. When you talk about regulating and controlling, you then have a model that can tax that substance. When you are taxing something, you can ring fence a portion of that tax to provide for mental health services. I’m absolutely open to that discussion.


I think the only practical hurdle will be about the realities of looking at, for example, what we’ve seen with the gambling model with regard to lotteries. There is a perverse incentive where communities who are torn apart by issues [as a result of] gambling are the same communities that rely on funding for the arts and cultural programs. That is where I think there needs to be some real serious research and evidence undertaken.


If this is something people really care about, what can they do personally to make a change?

For me: human connection, community, and belonging are the really critical things. I speak quite frequently about Zoe Palmer (19) who’s an incredible campaigner from Nelson. She was trying to save a mental health service for children and adolescents at the top of the South, and in doing so, was speaking about her own experiences with mental health issues. She was told by the “officials” and the “adults” that she was prejudicing her future by speaking about her mental health issues, and I think that perfectly characterises the issue we have right now. We’re telling young people that they have to speak out when they feel like they’re experiencing issues. But on the other hand, we’re telling them that they are going to be punished for doing so, by prejudicing their future. So I think we have to really reconcile with that cognitive dissonance.


To me, it [means] active cultural change. If anybody is genuinely wanting to participate in change, it looks like reaching out to other people when they look like they aren’t having a good enough time—when you’re asking people how they are, genuinely trying to spend those 30 seconds actually checking in. Because it allows you the opportunity to really reflect and to reach out if you need help, and to be there to support someone if they need it, too.


Further comments:

One thing I’m most excited about when it comes to the Piki model—and where I think it is quite different to other attempts at creating mental health services for young people—is the potential of the peer support program.


I think peer supporters are the mental health workers of tomorrow. There’s that sense of empathy that you don’t necessarily get when you are trying to access help [for the first time], and you walk into a white room and are asked to sit in a leather chair. Not only is that process super expensive and super inaccessible—it’s just it’s not going to work for everybody. Having the opportunity to talk to somebody who has grown up in largely the same context as you, I think there is a greater opportunity to engage and figure out where your head’s at.


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