Child poverty should be a key focus for Inquiry into Mental Health and Addictions

It is heartening that the Government has announced a national Inquiry into Mental Health and Addictions. Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) says it is vital that this Inquiry addresses child poverty as a preventable cause of mental health problems.

Evidence shows that poverty in childhood presents a greater likelihood of mental health problems throughout an individual’s life.

In 2017, CPAG and the New Zealand Psychological Society co-published the report “Child poverty and mental health: A literature review”. This review found a strong relationship between poverty experienced in childhood and a greater likelihood of mental health problems through a person’s life span. Problems associated with child poverty, such as poor nutrition and inadequate housing put children at higher risk of having mental health problems.

“Growing up in an environment that is characterised by constant unmet need, stress and hardship as well as the stigmas associated with poverty can have adverse effects on a child’s ability to learn and develop mentally, resulting in delayed cognitive abilities, low-self esteem, and mental ill health, with effects lasting to adulthood,” says Professor Innes Asher, CPAG health spokesperson.

“Prolonged time off school with devastating, poverty-related illnesses can be detrimental to children’s long-term mental health outcomes.”

New Zealand’s youth suicide rate (among 15-24 year olds) is the highest in the OECD, and in deprived communities the youth suicide rate is twice that of more affluent communities. Children in poverty are also more likely to experience depression and anxiety, and to self-harm.

New Zealand data shows that approximately two in five children living in poverty come from households where at least one adult was in full-time paid employment or was self-employed. This indicates that addressing child poverty requires adjusting all forms of family financial assistance: to families in paid work as well as families in receipt of welfare benefits.

The evidence strongly suggests that the incidence of mental health problems throughout the lifespan could be reduced through addressing the causes of child poverty and associated factors. Any mental health strategy for children should sit alongside a comprehensive programme to alleviate poverty.

CPAG is calling on the Government to:

  • Substantially reduce the number of children in poverty, especially including those in the most severe poverty and to monitor child poverty according to a set of agreed measures;
  • Reduce the cost barrier to health services for adolescents by extending free GP visits and prescriptions to all children under 18. Data shows that there is much greater unmet need due to cost in children over the age of 12;
  • Bolster mental health services, provide a timely response to need including having age-appropriate healthcare in schools that include mental health services;
  • Ensure that all children's nutritional needs are met;
  • Ensure security of tenure for families living in private rentals, and regulate rent increases in order to reduce housing poverty and transience-related stress on children;
  • Remove all benefit sanctions that affect children’s income situations.

These changes would need to run in parallel with a complete reform of welfare policy and processes, including addressing the harmful culture of Work and Income’s mistreatment of clientele.