From Innovation to Disruption: The Next Steps in Reducing the Burden of Mental Health Problems

The prevalence of mental health problems is on the rise, with the current treatment gap estimated to be about 400,000 people. And that’s an optimistic estimate. With just 3,000 psychologists in New Zealand, there is only one psychologist for every 312 people, making it impossible for one-to-one counselling to be the solution.

The epidemic proportions of mental health issues

Mental health problems are increasing at an alarming rate, affecting about a fifth of the population, which is equivalent to the population of the South Island, and growing. The current conventional treatments are not helping as many people as hoped, leading to an enormous treatment gap. And despite efforts to increase the number of mental health professionals on the ground, there remains a critical need for new solutions to address the crisis.

Watch Julia Rucklidge’s full talk on The Next Steps in Reducing the Burden of Mental Health Problems from the Future of Medicine Conference 2022.



We need accessible healthy options for everyone

To effectively address the mental health crisis, we need multiple solutions that are scalable, affordable, and personalised. Relying solely on more psychologists, psychiatrists, pharmacists, and naturopaths is not the answer. Instead, we need to look at innovative solutions that are practical and sustainable.

To improve the overall health and resilience of our population, we need to focus on addressing the commercial and social determinants of health, rather than just treating diseases and medicalising distress. We need to work together to make healthy options more accessible and affordable for everyone.

The impact of food on our brains

One area where we can make a big impact is by improving our food environment. We know that the food environment is currently killing us in many ways, but when it comes to the brain, people often don’t think about the impact of food.

The brain is an organ that punches above its weight – it is only 2% of body weight, but consumes between 20 to 40% of the food we eat. By teaching children to prioritise feeding their brain, we can help them develop a healthier relationship with food.

Unfortunately, we are currently eating a lot of ultra-processed products that are not nourishing for our bodies and are addictive. However improving the food environment is something that we have total control over changing. But it does require the will and support of industry and government. It’s not enough to just tell people to make healthier choices when the food industry floods the system with unhealthy options. In New Zealand, 69% of packaged foods in supermarkets are considered ultra-processed, and many children don’t have access to good food. It’s unacceptable that in a country such as New Zealand that there is such a high rate of food insecurity. We need to take a hard look at how this happened and work together to make positive changes.

Why we need micronutrients to help tackle mental health problems

Micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, are essential for various bodily functions, including communication between neurons, supporting mitochondrial activity, combating inflammation, supporting genetics, and eliminating toxins. These nutrients are needed in small amounts but are crucial for the production of enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters.

Research shows that a Mediterranean-style diet, high in fish, healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables, is associated with better mental health, while a Western-style diet, low in these foods and high in sugary drinks and takeaways, is linked to higher rates of mental illness. Basic lifestyle guidelines, such as eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising, is a simple way of reducing the likelihood of mental health problems.

Micronutrients and ADHD: A promising alternative to traditional treatments

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the neurodevelopmental disorder that affects millions of children and adults worldwide, is commonly treated with stimulant medications. However, research has shown that micronutrient supplementation may be a promising alternative to traditional treatments.

In a recent study, researchers found that micronutrient supplementation led to a higher rate of responders compared to placebo in both adults and children with ADHD. In a subsequent study, researchers at three different sites found an even higher rate of responders with lower placebo effects. These children had ADHD with mood dysregulation, and it is thought that the micronutrients may have helped stabilise their mood swings.

One surprising finding from the American study was that children in the micronutrient group grew 6mm more than those in the placebo group over eight weeks. This was a massive effect and highlights the importance of proper nutrition in children’s growth and development.
In contrast, the most common treatment for ADHD, stimulant medications, has been found to result in long-term growth deficits and a slowing down of growth velocity. This makes the findings on micronutrient supplementation even more promising as a potential alternative treatment for ADHD.

Furthermore, the benefits of micronutrient supplementation seem to be maintained or even grow over the long term. In one study, children who stayed on the micronutrients were more likely to continue to do well and stay in remission compared to those who switched to medications or stopped completely.

While there are still limitations to these studies, such as self-selection and observational bias, the promising results suggest that further research into micronutrient supplementation as an alternative treatment for ADHD is warranted. Not only may it be effective in reducing ADHD symptoms, but it may also promote healthy growth and development in children.

Why lifestyle and innovation are the answers to solving our mental health problems

The importance of proper nutrition and lifestyle guidelines cannot be overstated in maintaining good mental health. We should strive to eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and avoid ultra-processed foods.

To achieve this, innovative solutions are crucial. We need to consider legislation of ultra-processed products. We need to look at how we can use nudging as an important influencer of food choices, such as how we place menus in a restaurant, the specials that are put on, and the way food is placed in supermarkets.

Looking after our soil is another crucial factor for our health. Our soils are deficient in many nutrients, and balancing the soil can lead to less weeds, healthier plants and higher nutritional value in the fruits and vegetables we’re eating. If necessary, supplements may be helpful, particularly for those who have specific nutritional needs or are under chronic stress.

Promising alternatives to traditional treatments for mental health problems, such as micronutrient supplementation and simple interventions, show that we need to continue to innovate and disrupt old practices to reduce distress and promote better mental health for everyone.


Professor Julia Rucklidge Prof Clinical Psychology at University of Canterbury, mental health & nutrition researcher, co-author The Better Brain, TEDx & edX speaker and PREKURE Mental Health Faculty member. If you’d like to see more world class speakers talk about the future of medicine, check out the Future of Medicine Conference 2023. Learn more here.

Learn more about the Advanced Lifestyle Medicine for Mental Health course taught by Prof Julia Rucklidge.

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