Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Early intervention crucial. Ask the NZ PM

AUSTRALIA'S former chief scientist, Penny Sackett, resigned in February after eight months without meeting her boss, Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Across the Tasman, her counterpart, Sir Peter Gluckman, has a far closer relationship with Prime Minister John Key and it has led to an engrossing report on something that matters.

Its title is very dry: Improving the Transition: Reducing Social and Psychological Morbidity During Adolescence. But its goal is to explain why so many teenagers, particularly boys, fall off the rails. It asks what peer-reviewed science has to tell us about how to make it easier for them to find their way through to adulthood undamaged.

It's an issue we don't talk about. But anyone who has been to too many funerals of teenagers knows how important it is, and how many families it touches. Its reach ranges from teenage depression and suicide to drug addiction and alcohol abuse, violence and bullying, obesity and other health problems, sexual abuse, criminal activity and failure to acquire the social, educational and technical skills needed to get through life successfully.

Policy on these fronts is failing, and the cost is high. The report warns: "At least 20 per cent of young New Zealanders will exhibit behaviours and emotions or have experiences that lead to long-term consequences affecting the rest of their lives."

Together with a second report commissioned by the Key government on how to move people from welfare to work, it is challenging. Both reports cut across everyone's prejudices: the first because of its peer-reviewed evaluations of what works and what doesn't, and the second because it advocates a "tough love" approach focused on getting people off welfare and into jobs and spending more on them to save in the long term.

Their findings are complex but one message rings out strongly: prevention is better than cure, in cost and success rates. Early intervention to head off problems saves money in the long term. We need more programs that invest now to help create families that work, and in which people work.

The message has fallen on sympathetic ears. John Key, who in Canberra yesterday became the first New Zealand prime minister to address Federal Parliament, is an unusual man. He grew up in welfare housing in Christchurch after his father died, leaving his mother penniless. An Austrian-Jewish refugee, she fought her way back into the workforce, sent young John to university and then watched in admiration as he became a successful foreign exchange trader in Auckland, London, Singapore and Sydney.

By the age of 40, Key had made his fortune and decided to enter politics. He quickly became shadow finance minister, then National (Liberal) Party leader, then prime minister. He leads a middle-of-the-road coalition government that has proved very popular.

Key has never forgotten where he came from. His first speech in Parliament warned that New Zealand had developed an "underclass" of unemployed families, particularly among the Maori and Pacific Islander minorities. He is determined to reverse that. "In New Zealand now we are getting a third and fourth generation of families on welfare," Key told me yesterday.

In 2009, the OECD reported that New Zealand had the highest rates among Western societies of youth suicide and other measures of youth alienation. Key asked his chief scientist to investigate why.

Originally a paediatrician, Sir Peter is a global leader in research on the development of the brain. He recruited New Zealand's best and brightest to review the scientific literature in their fields, and report on what it tells us about why young people become alienated and what programs work to prevent or cure this.

The results are impossible to summarise in a column: the report is at www.pmcsa.org.nz. It tells us that while adolescence now starts earlier than ever 50 per cent of NZ girls have their first period at primary school new research shows the brain does not fully mature until the mid-20s, and the last skills to mature are those to do with judgment, risk assessment and self-control.

Poor judgment and self-control is the central problem of troubled teens, and depression is far more widespread than we realise. While there is no single solution, Sir Peter warns, "the research shows the best way of advancing self-control and protecting the young person in their transition to adulthood lies in focusing on the preschool years (and creating) quality early-childhood environments and education".

The welfare working group report (on the web at ips.ac.nz) similarly finds that the best way to stop unemployed young people becoming unemployable is to intervene early. It says the welfare system needs to be targeted at getting people back into work, and to be given more funding to fix the problems that make them unemployable, whether it is lack of technical skills, illiteracy, alcohol abuse, obesity, poor personal skills, whatever.

Key's ministers are considering both reports, but he agrees that early intervention is the way to go. "It will cost the government more, but in the long term it will produce much better outcomes. Without that, I don't think there is a long-term solution," he says.