Fears East Coast mental health services will be swamped by cyclone stress

Healthy Support

Many were displaced in Hawke’s Bay during Cyclone Gabrielle in February. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

By Lauren Crimp

Advocates warn mental health services will not be able to cope with the rising tide of post-cyclone trauma surfacing in Hawke’s Bay and Tairāwhiti.

Te Whatu Ora told RNZ the number of people seeking mental health support through their GP has jumped 30 per cent in Hawke’s Bay alone since Cyclone Gabrielle.

Napier Family Centre chief executive Kerry Henderson said the cyclone added to the stress people were already under from the pandemic and the spiralling cost of living.


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“We’re seeing more inquiries coming through for counselling in particular,” she said.

“I think it’s really important to remember the emotional and social impacts of natural disasters like floods or cyclones are going to remain long after the water recedes.”

A $10 million cyclone recovery budget boost for mental wellbeing initiatives was announced last week, but Henderson feared the workforce would struggle to deliver.

“This is a package that’s come out for a year, so in a sense from a business continuity plan and workforce planning, there is a real issue around lack of sustainable funding here.


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“Short-term and one-off funding makes it really hard to plan, develop the workforce, retain qualified and experienced people, and there is no spare workforce for us to tap into.”

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said sustainability was lacking in the system well before the cyclone.

“We still actually have no plan for workforce development and for expanding the workforce across mental health in New Zealand. So that’s the negative side, but on the positive side, we actually have an army of people in the community who help each other.”

The community showing up for one another was a big part of the response in Hawke’s Bay, and that would continue, Robinson said.

But it would not be enough for everyone.

A Queenstown-based psychologist – and former Napier resident – advocated for group therapy as an efficient solution.

Dr Chris Neuenfeld brought together a team of about 60 volunteer counsellors and psychologists to run online group therapy workshops for more than 300 people following the cyclone, and planned to organise more.

The therapy was not about sharing experiences with others – participants did not know who else was in the workshop – rather, being guided through a worksheet by a professional with the ability to communicate with them via online chat.

A Queenstown-based psychologist - and former Napier resident - advocates <a href=group therapy as an efficient solution for cyclone-related trauma. Photo Ian / Cooper ” class=”article-media__image responsively-lazy” data-test-ui=”article-media__image”/>
A Queenstown-based psychologist – and former Napier resident – advocates group therapy as an efficient solution for cyclone-related trauma. Photo Ian / Cooper

Participants’ post-traumatic stress and depression significantly improved following the sessions, he said.

Given the shortage of counsellors and psychologists in Aotearoa, Dr Neuenfeld said group therapy was a good option for helping people following a disaster like Cyclone Gabrielle.


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“I do think that there has to be a rethinking about what therapy, in particular after a large-scale event like this, what therapy looks like.

“We’ve shown we can provide really effective therapy to groups of people, and ultimately it’s sort of a numbers game, right?”

And the numbers are swelling. Te Whatu Ora said GP referrals for mental health support in Hawke’s Bay have risen 30 per cent since the cyclone.

Referrals also increased in Tairāwhiti – partly because the region’s numbers included Wairoa, which was cut off from Hawke’s Bay until State Highway 2 reopened on Sunday.

But there’s no indication yet on when some will be out of limbo, with the Government yet to announce which properties can be rebuilt, and which land is too unsafe for people to return to.

In the meantime, both Ropiha and Henderson said it was important local providers were given the funding and leeway to support the communities they know best.


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Meanwhile, Te Whatu Ora clinical psychologist Frances Oliver said the cyclone’s impact is still being felt by communities and those supporting the recovery process

The time frame and pathway of rebuilding will be different for everyone affected, as will be the road for psychological recovery as people often cope in different ways, she said.

“Rebuilding and recovering following a major disaster can be an emotional stage, with feelings ranging from frustration to grief to optimism when achievements are realised along the way.

“And even if you were not directly affected, visual reminders of the impact of the cyclone or working to support the recovery can cause strain. It’s also common for reminders of the event, such as recent rainfall, to bring back feelings of anxiety and memories of the day.”

Oliver said the love and support of whānau and friends, as well as making time for self-care, will help many people through this difficult time.

“Basic things, such as eating well and getting enough sleep, make a big difference to your mental wellbeing, as does connecting with people you love and doing things that you enjoy.”


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Te Whatu Ora and Te Aka Whai Ora have worked alongside primary care providers and a number of other agencies and iwi providers to provide mental wellbeing support to affected communities, with many kaimahi (staff) working from community hubs alongside rural response partners.

She said more than 200 people have received mental health first aid training, thanks to support from Red Cross and Te Pou, a national workforce centre for mental health, addiction and disability.

Where to get help

  • Log on to www.wellbeingsupport.health.nz to find a service close to you or you can call or text Need to Talk 1737 any time to talk with a trained counsellor.
  • At most general practices you can phone and book in to see a Health Improvement Practitioner (HIP), a registered mental health professional who provides advice and support promoting self-management, and connects people to other services they may need. Every day, HIPs have appointments that are not pre-booked so you can phone a general practice where you are enrolled and book in on that day.
  • The Depression Helpline – Call 0800 111 757 or text 4202 to talk to a trained counsellor about how you are feeling or to ask any questions.
  • Youthline – Call 0800 376 633, text 234, email talk@youthline.co.nz, or go to youthline.co.nz for an online chat.
  • The Lowdown – Text 5626 for support to help young people recognise and understand depression or anxiety.
  • Healthline – Call 0800 611 116 for health advice and information.
  • Alcohol Drug Helpline – Call 0800 787 797 to speak with a trained counsellor.
  • Tips and support, go to allsorts.org.nz.
  • Rural support Call 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP) or visit farmstrong.co.nz

Free wellbeing apps

  • You can download the Groov and Headstrong wellbeing apps free for android and Apple phones. Just go to Google Play or the Apple app store.


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