How to run a kick-ass campaign to save your local specialist mental health service

Zoe Palmer was horrified to hear that a specialist service that helps Nelson youth in times of crisis is being merged into the adult service. So she did something about it.

We talked to Zoe to find out the ‘behind the scenes’ of the campaign she ran, how she did it and how she knew what to do at each point.

Zoe, 18 years old, representing 2300 Nelsonians on the steps of Parliament with MPs Paul Eagle (Labour) and Gareth Hughes (Greens), July 2018. Photo supplied by the Green Party.

We all want young people to have access to the expert support they need, when they need it. This is what a successful specialist service in Nelson is able to do.

The Child Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) is a service found only in Nelson that connects young people in crisis with specialist staff at all hours and it’s saving lives.

Zoe is a young woman who knows the benefits of the CAMHS service firsthand. She knows it works and that a lot of other people who use the service need it too.

Yet the Nelson-Marlborough District Health Board is threatening the service with closure. It would blend the service it provides into the adult service where the staff do not have specialist training in working with young people.

Zoe first heard of the planned closure through news reports back in August 2017. She says it really ‘pissed her off’ because the people making the decision had done no consultation of those people most affected - young people in Nelson.

At a time when the Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction is seeking input into how to improve the way we support the mental health of New Zealanders, she feels the plan to dismantle this service is seriously wrong. Why remove this model before the inquiry reports back, she thought, and without any intention to make the service for young people better?

Zoe felt like something had to be done.

She felt she wanted to give a voice to others who don’t necessarily feel confident or have a platform to make change in the community.

So Zoe initiated a campaign to change the minds of the Health Board members — a campaign that went from surveying young people, organising public events, connecting with politicians, speaking to media and even making a documentary!

This is how she did it.

ONE — data collection

First she surveyed over 300 young people through Facebook and email, in late 2017 to find out what they thought of the CAMHS service. A majority of young people wanted the service to remain separate from the adult service.

One consistent piece of feedback from the survey was the issue of stigma around issues to do with mental health, leading to young people being reluctant to discuss their own experiences openly. Zoe says mental health is just like any health issue, except hidden.

It led to an idea of making mental health more public, and talking about it in a safe, public space.

TWO — a fun public event

So Zoe co-organised a spoken word poetry night ‘Word on the Street’ event which took place on 13 Jan 2018. “Word on the Street was just me and [my friend] Yazzie, we started a facebook page and messaged heaps of people about it to get them along. It was a full house and about 12 people performed.”

At the event she stood up to talk about saving the service and there was a lot of support for a campaign to save the CAMHS service.

Save the CAMHS crisis team in Nelson

THREE — a documentary

There was still no acknowledgement from the DHB management. They didn’t seem to care.

The event had given her the idea of making a documentary about the situation to give it a public voice. As part of the doco she interviewed young people, teachers and union representative about the benefits and need for the CAMHS service.

The documentary was launched on Youtube on 5 April and the ‘ask’ at the end of the video was for viewers to sign a petition setup on OurActionStation.

FOUR — a petition

The petition asked the DHB and the Health Minister David Clark to keep the CAMHS crisis team intact. It linked to the video and a Facebook page.

The petition enabled people to connect with the campaign and bring people around the issue.

Zoe focused on sharing the campaign on social media and we emailed our ActionStation community in Nelson to ask to support. In three months it gained over 2000 signatures.

Around this time the Health Minister initiated an independent review of the decision to close CAMHS in response to public concerns.

FIVE — a submission to the Inquiry

The Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction is an official government review by an independent panel of experts consulting with members of the public to work out how exactly the government can deliver better mental health services for all of us.

Zoe spoke at the local Nelson panel on 4 May where she presented the results of the survey and asked for the CAMHS service to be kept in place. The Inquiry is due to give its final report in October.

SIX — a public meeting

Late May Zoe felt the campaign was stalling and the DHB were still not listening. So Zoe organised a public meeting which took place on 15 June. She says this was a big one — a win-win to get people talking, people listening to those who work in the industry, and it amped up the petition.

An amazing outcome of this meeting was representatives from all political parties getting behind the campaign. Together the politicians signed a letter writing to the Minister of Health to ask him to review the decision to close the CAMHS service.

Zoe herself emailed the Minister to ask for a meeting which he has so far declined.

The public meeting was a big push forward to take it to another level and was a good lead in for the delivery of the petition.

SEVEN — deliver the petition

On 12 July Zoe traveled to Wellington to deliver the petition signed by over 2300 Nelsonians to supportive MPs Paul Eagle (Labour) and Gareth Hughes (Greens), who presented it officially at Parliament.

“An awesome, grass-roots campaign.” — Chlöe Swarbrick, Green MP [Stuff]

While Zoe brought her personal passion to the campaign there are real strengths to the tactics she chose to focus on and the way she set about it.

Lessons along the way

Zoe says each step had its own challenges but she was able to overcome with support from others.

She got people in Nelson talking about the CAMHS service and created publicity for a situation that would otherwise be hidden. She did this by connecting with the people who are most affected by the issue. She engaged with decision makers and media by acting locally and telling her own story.

Zoe was proactive in getting media attention, especially from journalists interested in a local Nelson angle but also national media. She told her own personal story to give the motivation for the campaign. She asked someone she knew had media experience for advice and help with writing a press release. He helped out and then joined the campaign team.

She says the petition would have been difficult without support from ActionStation and finding ways to combine it with the offline activities.

She says she thought “why aren’t people signing this? It took a while to get my head around it. You have to get out there, push it, make it obvious, no one is googling this petition. It has to be right there in front of them in their social media feeds for them to take action”.

“It’s apparent the 18-year-old Nelson College for Girls student has carried out a powerful, inspiring and unorthodox political campaign.” Stuff

The campaign was just herself at the start, but a team grew as Zoe approached people to help.

“I needed my team to get this far, a bunch of key people helping out, it grew around the campaign. There was support from the PSA union, a worker from the DHB, and local politicians — people helped with organising the events and promotion through different channels.” — Zoe

Along the way Zoe made a lot of contacts and is now networked with others campaigning on mental health issues.

“What impresses me about her is her tenacity. She has not given up and made sure the issue has stayed in the public mind. I spoke to her earlier in the year and she made the comment that ‘they haven’t met me yet’, which meant she wasn’t going to drop it.” — Rachel Boyack, Labour party

From her experience so far Zoe’s message for others setting out on their campaign is to be flexible and respond to what is needed at each time.

She herself didn’t know all the things to do before they happened and feels if she’d tried to plan too closely it might not have worked. It’s good to be flexible and say ‘ok, we’ll try that’ when an opportunity presents itself.

Now at this stage she says she’s tired but hopeful — we’ll be following progress of the petition through the Parliamentary process! You can still sign the petition to get updates on the campaign here: Save the CAMHS Crisis Team

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Where to get help:

In an emergency call 111.
Lifeline 0800 543 354.
Suicide Prevention Helpline 0508 828 865.
Youthline 0800 376 633 / free text 234 or email talk@youthline.org.nz.

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Media stories covering the campaign

Renewed call to save Nelson Marlborough’s youth mental health crisis service, 1 March 2018

Mental health inquiry panel hears from Nelson community, 4 May

Teen’s mental health campaign going to Parliament, 10 June

Political opponents turn allies over Nelson’s mental health crisis, 17 June

Health Minister calls for immediate review of DHB move to alter Nelson after-hours mental health service for kids & teens, 19 June

Teenage mental health campaigner seeks meeting with minister, 24 June

How Nelson developed a pioneering mental health service for children and adolescents, 7 July

With bio: Teenage campaigner’s tenacious battle for youth mental health, 7 July

Zoe’s press release: Nelson Teen Takes Mental Health Campaign to Parliament

Teen’s fight to keep 24 hour mental health service in Nelson reaches Parliament, 12 July

Youth mental health campaigner weighs next steps after Parliament visit, 12 July