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Mental health and material situation of youth cause for concern – Treasury’s chief adviser

Dominick Stephens, Chief Economic Adviser for the NZ Treasury

Treasury’s chief economic adviser Dominick Stephens says
Photo: Supplied

The psychological distress of young people and Māori and wide wealth gap between older and younger New Zealanders are cause for concern, the Treasury’s chief economic adviser says.

The Treasury has released what it calls its first “big picture” overview of wellbeing in Aotearoa.

It says the report will establish a lasting evidence base that can be used by the Treasury and other organisations to understand the trends, distribution and sustainability of wellbeing.

Among the findings are that younger New Zealanders are doing far worse in key areas of life than older people – suffering higher levels of psychological distress and declining educational achievement.

The Treasury’s chief economic adviser, Dominick Stephens, told Morning Report although figures suggest New Zealanders lives have improved over the past 20 years with benefits like higher incomes, people were not necessarily feeling better.

“We have longer lives now, we’re safer at work and safer on the roads, we have cleaner air, our incomes are higher – many objective measures of wellbeing have improved, but we’re not necessarily feeling better,” he said.

“So things like loneliness, subjective well being our answer to life satisfaction, those things haven’t really changed much and actually, mental health is getting worse.”

The lives of younger people are particularly affected by mental distress and material needs unable to be met, particular in the area of housing.

“The key finding in the report is that older New Zealanders have higher well being in a range of ways then lower New Zealanders and actually the gap here is in many respects wider than other OECD countries,” Stephens said.

“In particular, young people are experiencing a sharp lift in psychological distress. In New Zealand, we’ve noted that school achievement or cognitive ability at age 15 is deteriorating.

“Younger people are more likely to live in moldy or substandard houses. We have high rates of people that are not in education, employment or training among young people.

“Meanwhile, older New Zealanders are enjoying a financial wealth gap over younger New Zealanders that has doubled over the past 20 years.

“They experienced things like lower loneliness, better social connections, more positive emotions, just in a wide range of ways.”

He said the deterioration in psychological wellbeing and education for younger people was a cause for concern and something that should be looked at carefully.

Stephens acknowledged it was normal in OECD countries for material hardship to be less common among older people than younger people, due to an accumulation of resources over a longer life time. But that gap was particularly pronounced in New Zealand.

This social inequality was being severely felt by people who lived in sole parent families.

The report also highlighted Māori as suffering high levels of distress, discrimination and low trust in official institutions.

“Similar to nationwide, Māori wellbeing in many respects is improving – the life expectancy is improving, for example, tamariki in poverty is declining,” he said.

“But there were three standout areas really for Māori wellbeing and that increase in psychological distress is particularly acute there. Māori report experiencing the highest rates of discrimination, and there remains particularly low trust in government among Māori.”

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