“My own Party was too slow in government to take the portfolio seriously”
Matt Doocey is National Party’s first Spokesperson for Mental Health (Newsroom Photo by Lynn Grieveson)
National’s first-ever Mental Health And Suicide Prevention Spokesperson says that his own Party was too slow in government to take the portfolio seriously.
For two years, Matt Doocey dealt with the side effects of a head injury that led to bouts of depression, destructive behaviour and isolating from his family and friends.
He had survived a serious car crash in Timaru at the age of 19, along with two other friends – one of whom was the driver, who fell asleep at the wheel at more than 100 kmh. The car flipped and Doocey, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown out the back windscreen.
Not that he would want his two young children to know, but a Police Officer later told him being thrown from the vehicle saved him as what was left of the backseat where he was sitting was very little.
“The car just crushed into a cube at the front around the driver and passenger, who both survived as well,’’ Doocey told Newsroom.
This was about three decades ago and the only follow-up to his injuries was two appointments at the hospital to check on broken bones – at no point did anyone discuss with him his head injuries or what might result from the impact.
“Over time I was struggling to concentrate, getting frustrated and increasingly anxious, and now I know that I was going through depressive bouts, and it was leading to destructive behaviour, and I was becoming more and more isolated from friends and family,’’ he said.
Doocey was a Rugby player who loved to have a few beers and scoffed at a friend’s suggestion to go talk to someone about his mental health.
“It eventually got to a point where it was no longer sustainable, so I did. That literally changed my life. So, I thought to myself, I want to do that person’s job and that is why I trained in mental health and studied counselling and psychology,” he said.
Career in Mental Health
It led to a long career at the NHS in the UK and working in mental health at a community level back in New Zealand.
Doocey said that nobody understood the impact head injuries could have on mental health back then and “to this day I know my Mum holds a bit of guilt around it.”
Even when he entered Parliament in 2014, the seriousness placed on mental health and suicide prevention was lacking, he said.
“I am National’s first Mental Health Spokesperson and I don’t think I could have done some of this stuff 10 years ago as an MP. That is where it was a disappointment to be part of the last term of the last National government. I was new and as a backbencher I did not have any real ability to advocate for change, but there was this huge demand we were facing. The numbers were showing they were ticking up for mental health services and we were just very slow to respond to that,’’ Doocey said.
Perception and Reality
“In politics, perception becomes reality very quickly. Labour would have seen through their focus groups that it was becoming an issue and jumped on that.’’
Doocey accuses Labour, then in Opposition, of politicising mental health.
“I would argue that they took it too far and weaponised suicide statistics against us. They set a very high bar for themselves, and this is part of the issue that they are facing now because they promised a lot,” he said.
The MP for Waimakariri is critical of the government’s recent review of mental health by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The stocktake was done by the Implementation Unit, set up by and reporting to the Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson.
Doocey called for a health select committee inquiry, but it was voted down by Labour’s majority MPs, on the basis, that Health Minister Andrew Little was already undertaking a review.
“I think that it should have been independent of the government – there was real validity in thinking about how the select committee could have undertaken the inquiry and had a cross-Party look at it,’’ he said.
Little admits slow progress
In an unlikely partnership, Little agrees with Doocey that despite a whopping $1.9 billion investment in the 2019 Budget, there has not been as much progress as some might expect.
In an interview with Newsroom last month ahead of the stocktake, Little said that it was “extraordinarily frustrating’’ how long it was taking to get to the point of construction with some significant upgrades and rebuilds of facilities.
“After having made the decision in 2019 that we are going to spend $235 million on these five (mental health) facilities – two years on we are still in so-called planning stages and in some cases, a site hasn’t even been identified yet as to where a particular facility is going to go.
“It is just ridiculous,’’ Little exclaimed at the time.
Doocey doubts if anyone in New Zealand “believes mental health work is on track’’ as the government’s stocktake has suggested.
All the signs were pointing in the right direction when Labour announced its significant investment, but Doocey said that despite an inquiry, which accepted that 38 out of 40 recommendations and cash injection, the progress seems to have since come to a crashing halt.
He points to former National Party Health Minister Tony Ryall as an example of someone who had their finger on the pulse of the health system.
“He was known to go and sit in A+E departments and just watch what was going on. He was known to call up DHB heads on a Sunday morning after he’d read something in a report to question what the issue was,’’ Doocey said.
New Mental Health conversation
National has declared it will create a Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention if back in government, the first of its kind.
He said that is off the back of the prominence mental health now has, something he sees when he speaks to his constituents.
“It feels like the country wants to have this conversation and parliamentarians are being driven by the public on this. Politics is about timing, but it kind of feels like the time for mental health has come in politics as well,’’ Doocey said.
This is Mental Health Awareness Week, which speaks for itself in terms of how far the country has come.
“The idea now that we have got farmers turning up to woolsheds to talk openly about their own mental health, that wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. Who better than someone as iconic as Sir John Kirwan to stand up and say it’s okay to cry? That resonates with the whole country and what a great role model he is,” he said.
Window of change
Doocey believes that there is a “window to have generational change about how we deal with mental health and respond to it’’.
And it’s needed more than ever with the Covid pandemic, which will “lead to more mental distress in the community – a shadow pandemic of higher rates of mental distress.”
Asked whether mental health issues are more prolific, or just more prominent, Doocey is sceptical there is a higher need now.
“Look back at post-Second World War, are you telling me there were no huge rates of mental distress? Of course, there was, but it was all behind closed doors. Domestic violence, alcohol abuse, suicide – it wasn’t talked about. People feared if they did, they’d be locked up in an asylum,’’ he said.
That has changed and today youth have a “whole new vocabulary to talk about mental health that we never had. They are open to talking and expressing their own issues and face less stigma when asking for help,’’ Doocey said.
Pressure on lawmakers
That also puts pressure on Parliamentarians to talk more openly about mental health and not hide behind a façade.
“The public now expects us to have a bit more of a human face, they want to know we are real and our faults because that makes us relatable and connected to them. They want to know we’re grappling with the same issues.’’
For Ministers, in particular, Doocey said that there is an “apprehension around being vulnerable and sharing those experiences.”
“They will stand up and say that all is good, whether it is in their professional or personal life. There is a real risk of not being true to ourselves but being vulnerable is actually quite a strength and quite human as well,” he said.
Doocey has held a role in the Whip’s office of the National Party under all five leaders, dating back to Sir John Key.
It is a role that draws on his people skills and understanding of the various stresses his caucus colleagues might be under.
He said that Parliament is no different to any other business or organisation and both staff and MPs in the building are still “learning to do better on mental health.”
A big step in the right direction is the access those in Parliament now have to confidential mental health support.
The Pressure of Politics
Politicians are typically “classic A-type personalities, hugely driven people,” Doocey said.
Long hours are worked, and burnout is a real threat.
“If I think about myself, one of my biggest problems is that I am hugely critical of myself and am constantly going back and looking to see where I could have done better. That approach is not sustainable. Media interviews are probably a classic example for MPs going back and looking at where you could have done better. At some point, you have to accept there isn’t a perfect interview,” he said.
Doocey loves his job as an electorate MP, especially in a rural community where he is simply known as ‘Matt’ and can juggle being a Dad and a politician often at the same time.
“I might have screaming children in the back of the car while I am putting groceries in from Pak N Save and people just come up and have a chat,” he said.
So, does he aspire to be his Party’s first Minister for Mental Health?
“I would love to do that, but the reality is that the decision is not mine.’’
It is also a question he admits sits quite “uneasy” with him.
“As evidenced by my seven years in Parliament, I am not here to create a brand or profile. That stuff does not interest me. I just want to do the work and that is what I get the most reward from,’’ he told Newsroom.
Need for action
If he could implement one thing in his time in Parliament, it would be to set up a gold standard of mental health awareness and resilience skills for school-aged children at each year level.
For many at a young age, the difference between good and bad mental health is having the ability to deal with stresses in life, Doocey said.
Stress and anxiety come with the territory working in Parliament too.
Doocey said that he is lucky that he has a deep knowledge and understanding of what to look out for and does regular checks on himself, “sometimes several times a day.”
“Being married and having two children makes a difference for me. Before, I was hugely caught up around progression, what next, and how I could do more. That feeds into being hugely critical of myself.’’
Over time Doocey has realised that being an MP does not define him anymore – “There are bigger things in life.”
“Sometimes I realise success is the things around you, rather than what you are striving to next.”
Jo Moir is Political Editor at Newsroom based in Wellington. The above story has been published under a Special Agreement with Newsroom.