The Equally Well collaborative has scooped the top prize in the Physical Health and/or Primary Care category at the TheMHS Learning Network Awards in Auckland. TheMHS is the largest mental health and addiction services conference in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, and is held in New Zealand every eight years.

Equally Well is a New Zealand movement to improve physical health outcomes for people who experience mental health and addiction problems. 

The formation of the Equally Well collaborative in 2014 followed international trends to have cross-sector involvement across various professional colleges, the Ministry of Health, DHBs, NGOs and consumer and family organisations to improve physical health outcomes for people who experience mental health and addiction problems.

Equally Well’s strategic lead, Helen Lockett, said it was an absolute honour to accept the award on behalf of the more than 71 organisations who make up the collaborative.

“Everyone involved in Equally Well is a leader in their own right – willing to acknowledge some pretty confronting issues, willing to work together to find solutions and willing to accept that we can and need to do better,” Ms Lockett said.

The TheMHS Awards judging panel said it was impressed by Equally Well because, despite its minimal budget and relatively short life, it demonstrated that a great deal of value could be added to the health sector through collaboration around a common goal. 

It said the number of organisations involved was impressive and the entry provided excellent examples of organisations creating change, including the Primary Options initiative, which provides funded GP and nurse visits in Tairāwhiti. This started as a result of the Equally Well summit meeting in 2013.  

Hauora Tairāwhiti funder and planner Ellen Fisher had been thinking about something and came away from the summit determined to re-invigorate the Primary Options initiative. It involves everyone who is under the care of specialist adult community mental health and addiction teams receiving six funded GP visits a year for their physical healthcare. Everyone transitioning from specialist services receives four extended GP visits and four regular GP visits plus between 12-26 practice nurse visits, and each general practice has funded access to eight 30-minute sessions per year with a consultant psychiatrist. 

The initiative is a partnership between Hauora Tairāwhiti, Pinnacle Midlands Health Network, Ngāti Porou Hauora and National Hauora Coalition as well as the local NGOs Emerge Aotearoa, Turanga Health and Te Kupenga Net Trust.

Marion Blake, chief executive of Platform Trust said Hauora Tairāwhiti’s initiative is just one example of real changes being driven by the collaborative. 

“I’ve never seen an initiative take off so quickly and so widely in New Zealand. It has really got people thinking about what they can do in their spheres of influence to make a difference,” Ms Blake said.

Caro Swanson, service user lead for Te Pou o Te Whakaaro Nui (Te Pou) said one of the “wicked issues” the collaborative was addressing is the fact that life expectancy of people with serious mental health and addiction problems is up to 25 years less than those in the general population.

“Many people are spending years living with undetected but treatable physical health problems needlessly and also some people are losing their lives because things have been picked up too late,” Ms Swanson said.

Other initiatives that were underway as a result of the collaborative include organisations working to reduce stigma and discrimination and promote consumer leadership and input, and making physical health more visible in mental health and operational policies. Organisations were also promoting the use of shared electronic records to provide better integrated health care.

Ms Lockett said the Equally Well collaborative has been self-organising with a backbone support function provided by Te Pou. 

“We have purposely avoided it being owned or led by any single organisation as its important innovation, initiative and leadership comes from many people and organisations across health and other sectors.

“This award really is an acknowledgment of the depth and breadth of the collaborative and goes to everyone involved. We have achieved so much in a short time, but this is a complex and entrenched set of issues which needs sustained collective impact to affect real and lasting change.”  

The Award was presented at the TheMHS Awards in Auckland in August by New Zealand’s Mental Health Commissioner Kevin Allan. 

Visit the Equally Well web page for more information about improving physical health outcomes for people who experience mental health and addiction problems, including who is involved in the collaborative, the actions they are taking and what you can do to get more involved.