Joe Hendren

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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

United Future trivialises mental health and drug addiction

"United Future deputy leader Judy Turner today welcomed the Government's belated move to a new 'second opinion' approach to assessing sickness beneficiaries, but said that those doctors should have some psychological expertise given the rapidly rising number of stress-related claims."
"A number of doctors have told me that they are increasingly being asked to sign-off on claims by potential beneficiaries that they suffer from fairly intangible or subjective disorders, such as stress, depression, back pain and even drug addiction,"
Judy Turner appears to be propagating the old stereotype that mental illnesses are not as serious as physical illnesses. None of these disorders should be trivialised as 'fairly intangible' or 'subjective' in such a sweeping statement, as doctors have well developed diagnostic criteria to identify these disorders, such as the DSM IV. Left untreated these disorders can lead to some very tangible effects indeed.
"Stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. Depression often predicts the occurrence of disease, and epidemiological studies have found that people with serious mental illness have higher rates of grave medical illness and premature death than the general population.
Stress and depression often have a significant cognitive angle, in that the same event or environment can have a more significant impact on one person than another. But this does not make this any less real, or any less debilitating, to the person concerned.

In regards to the issue of people moving from unemployment to sickness benefits, it is entirely possible this followed the tightening up of work test requirements. To give them their due, perhaps some WINZ case managers recognised harsh work testing arrangements are not appropriate for some 'unemployed people', especially those dealing with divorce, family breakdown or grief.

As someone who has worked with people with drug addictions I find it very hard to believe that anyone could plausibly 'fake' an addiction to get a benefit, as the general 'sense' of chaos and desperation would not be there. Its likely to be just another unsubstantiated myth invented by the right in an attempt to justify benefit cuts.

While Maharey's proposal for 'second opinions' appears reasonable, its timing looks exceptionally political, given its release a few hours before a speech propagating more myths about welfare.

Its worth noting that G.P.s can only prescribe a limited set of drugs to treat mental health. Many medications, especially newer (and more expensive) medications can only be prescribed following a referral to a psychiatrist, and a referral can mean a long wait, as NZ has a significant shortage of psychiatrists (blame student loans, its a lower paid specialty). NZ also has a shortage of clinical psychologists. So, as well as being based on some extremely dated myths about mental health, United Future's ideas are likely to be unworkable as well.

Judy Turner should stop telling doctors how to do their job. Instead she should make an effort to learn more about mental illnesses and drug addiction before she makes ill informed public comments that only reinforce ignorant stereotypes.

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