Settings for a fair society need rebalancing 

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    “No one should be surprised if there is a crisis of mistrust in politicians in New Zealand, and across the Anglo-American world. For the past 30 years, they have been pursuing a philosophy that strikes at the heart of trust and integrity in public life,” Dame Anne Salmond said this time last year.

    Calling for a balance to the “ravages of neo-liberalism”, she said “the rise and spread of neo-liberalism since the 1980s has been a remarkable phenomenon. At its heart, it is based on a simple, utterly amoral idea: “that of the cost-benefit calculating individual. Life is understood as a competitive struggle among individuals. Each seeks to minimise their costs and maximise their benefits,” she said.


    Children’s mental wellbeing is about income, wealth and deprivation.


    “Once this idea is accepted, a compelling logic unfolds. Those who seek to maximise their benefits are entitled (even required) to minimise their costs “ in particular, those costs that benefit others, since the contest is competitive.. . . . Those who seek to maximise their benefits are entitled to minimise these costs by tax avoidance or tax regimes that reward the successful.

    “If success itself is a virtue, the question of how that success was achieved becomes irrelevant,” she said in an early assessment of the then-rising political phenomenon that was Donald Trump.

    “In this way of thinking, those who succeed are entitled (even required) to use their success to acquire ever more wealth and power. The logic of neo-liberalism drives relentlessly towards increasing inequality,” she said.

    We still seem to be at it, even in the face of what will probably be a make-or-break election year. Over the coming months, we must either wrestle our government’s social and moral settings into a more wholesame frame or sink under the consequences ­– our suicide rate among young people  being one of the most intolerable.

    Current debate about high levels of suicide in New Zealand misses the clear links between inequality, poverty and general deprivation to suicide and the connection is obviously stress Peter Malcolm, national secretary of Income Inequality Aotearoa New Zealand Inc—Closing the Gap, said this week.

    Official acknowledgement of the problem has been woeful. Although the suicide rate in the mid 2000s was already alarming, the New Zealand Suicide Prevention Strategy 2006–2016 had seven goals, most of them palliative. “Reduce access to the means of suicide” and “Promote mental health and well-being, and prevent mental health problems” – that kind of thing.

    The current operative action plan for 2013 to 2016 is so broad brush as to be equally meaningless, with calls to address “the impact of suicide on families, whānau and communities by strengthening support for family, whānau and communities”.
    Clearly, some of the major underlying causes of suicide are poverty and inequality, but no-where is the fact allowed to intrude on this fatuous busyness.

    Malcolm pointed to the conclusions of Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level that show a clear connection between mental distress and social disadvantage, with children from resource-poor backgrounds two to three times more likely to experience mental unwellness.

    “Self harm and suicide are more likely in children who experience poverty.”
    Between 5000 and 14,000 children up to 14 years old and 43,000 to 64,000 young adults are formally diagnosed with depression in New Zealand each year.

    Data from the Youth 2000 study, analysed by Simon Denny and colleagues and published by the University of Auckland, found that young people who grew up in poor families living in wealthier neighbourhoods had poorer mental health than those poor children who grew up in poor neighbourhoods,” said Malcolm.

    “Feeling poor, and to be constantly exposed to the negative views that many people in New Zealand hold about low income families, is hardly an environment that would help a young person develop a sense of self confidence,” he said.

    “It is clear that our mental health system is overwhelmed.  Children’s mental wellbeing is about income, wealth and deprivation. Targeting children who are already mentally unwell is insufficient.”

    If we want to make a serious difference in our appalling suicide rate, particularly among young people, we need a huge input into our mental health services, a clear policy from Government to reduce child poverty, and a major effort from Government to reduce inequality, Malcolm concluded.

    None of this is rocket science.  Until the 1980s, we pretty much had it all.  Education, health, housing and the welfare safety net were an unquestioned common good. Only the settings held in place by subsequent ideologically-driven governments are different – and only a willing government can rebalance them.  Liz Waters

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