Mental Health - Is there something we have missed?

As I See It by John Appleton

There’s a saying – if you keep looking in the wrong place you will never find what you are looking for.

In our little country we have a massive problem with mental health. And it seems that regardless of how much we spend, we are just not getting on top of it.  We have the highest rate of youth suicide in the OECD and the number of New Zealanders seeking help for mental health issues increased from 96,000 in 2008 to 168,000 last year. 

Last October, the World Health Organisation launched a one-year campaign focused on depression and encouraging people to talk about it. The organisation said more than 300 million people around the world were now living with depression - an increase of more than 18 per cent between 2005 and 2015.

According to the World Health Organization, mental illness accounts for 15% of the total burden of disease in the developed world, with depression set to become the second leading cause of disability in the world by 2020.

Mentally-ill people have a mortality rate which is twice as high as the general population, with increased risk of death from cancer, cardiovascular disease and external causes such as suicide.

Newspaper headlines in our country make the situation very clear:

NZ Herald - Mike King: ‘New Zealand's mental health system is 'broken'

NZ Herald – ‘Mental health provisions for schools 'appalling' 

‘Break the Silence: More kids in crisis being turned away by public system’ 

Do we think that employing another 300 psychiatrists, as suggested by the Health Minister, will fix the problem? In the U.S., the New York Times interviewed one prominent psychiatrist who said that his current patient load had swollen to 1200 because he could treat them in a 15 minute meeting that mostly consisted of adjusting their prescriptions. One in five Americans is on some form of psychotropic drug. If we are not careful, New Zealand could find itself on the same pathway.  

Doesn’t anyone ever ask why the incidence of mental health difficulty is increasing so dramatically?  Recently I read an article in a British magazine titled “Mental Starvation”, which has a take-home message stating that mental illness could be a deficiency of key nutrients, particularly B vitamins. More properly, it might be called ‘mental deficiency’. 

Last century, pioneering Canadian psychiatrist Abram Hoffer first championed the use of a nutritional approach to mental illness after noticing that symptoms of certain deficiencies were similar to those of schizophrenia. He wrote at the time, ‘’if vitamin B3 was removed from our food, we would all become psychotic within a year”. Hoffer and many others went on to treat symptoms of extreme anxiety and stress with B vitamins and they achieved very significant success. 

He said people who had suffered for years, or been on suicide watch, and had taken a cocktail of pharmaceutical options, got better overnight when given high doses of B vitamins. New research is suggesting why nutritional interventions might be so effective.  

A large percentage of the population has a mutation in a gene that processes B vitamins.  

This gene is known as MTHFR (Methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase) and it’s a significant issue that all doctors should be aware of. Apparently, one in five people may have difficulties in processing B vitamins. The other very important take-home message is that in the western world, we are addicted to processed food and important nutrients such as B vitamins are processed out of many foods. 

As I see it, there should be a strong government focus on how this potentially life-saving information can be applied. Prof Julia Rucklidge at University of Canterbury has conducted some excellent research using broad spectrum nutritional formulations. Results have been very promising, but her work has been largely ignored. Why?  Nutritional interventions are cheap and readily available and are not able to be patented and sold to governments at huge prices. 

John Appleton 

09 489 9362


Issue 81 October 2017