16 Feb 2016

Christchurch mental health funding slashed

1:11 pm on 16 February 2016

There are long waits for counselling services because of strong demand in the city, quake-stressed residents and doctors in Christchurch say.

Ministry of Social Development (MSD) has released figures which show, since last year, funding for psychological services through community groups has been cut from $1.6 million to $200,000. Funding for trauma counselling has halved to just over $400,000.

The Ministry said the funding has decreased because fewer people are accessing services.

Relationships Aotearoa closed its doors in June.

Counselling service Relationships Aotearoa, which had an office in Christchurch, closed its doors in June. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Christchurch GP Jeremy Baker who works for Pegasus Health disagrees.

He said rather than demand declining, he and other doctors were just seeing the tip of the iceberg and he refers patients to counsellors four or five times a day.

"Suicide rates are rising, depression and anxiety are in no way being covered, I think, by present services, one of the issues potentially is people don't fully know what they're experiencing, or how to understand the experiences they're going through.

"The availability of counselling may be there, but the support and the funding still need to be lifted to make it accessible."

A Christchurch resident who said she had suffered mental health problems after the 2011 quake said she was referred to a counsellor at the district health board only four weeks ago.

"If I have to wait four weeks for counselling when my GP has recommended I get it as soon as possible, and my GP has apologised for a three week delay, and after four weeks I still don't have an appointment - all I've had is a letter - then there is demand and it's unmet."

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley defended the funding decision.

"Look, no funding's been cut, that's very mischievous to say that, there's demand-driven funding,

"So we're well aware that what's happened at the weekend is going to make a difference, and we need to be able to react to that sensibly. But there's no doubt that there's funding there for counselling services."

Ms Tolley said the government also needed to look at other ways to reach people in the community rather than just having a number to call.

The cuts were made before Sunday's 5.7 magnitude shake.

This is despite a 55 percent increase in suicide-related callouts in the Canterbury region since 2011 and a 30 percent increase in demand for counselling services in schools.

Labour Deputy Leader, Annette King.

Labour MP Annette King Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Salvation Army support worker Major Brenda Luscombe said there was still a huge need for help in Christchurch.

The Salvation Army began a schools support programme immediately after the earthquakes, which has worked with more than 3000 children.

Major Luscombe said funding for the programme was ending, despite some children still experiencing problems.

She said some children were coming to school unable to concentrate, hold a pencil, or to interact in a group.

Labour health spokesperson Annette King said the cuts were premature.

"We do not know what the long-term impact of those two major earthquakes [4 September 2010 and 22 February 2011] are having on the population."

Association of Counsellors president Robyn McGill said the MSD counselling was essential for those who could not afford to go privately.

"We've got anecdotal evidence that even children starting school as five-year-olds have many and complex needs and they have developmental and trauma issues," she said.

A huge dust cloud follows the collapse of a cliff near Sumner.

A huge dust cloud follows the collapse of a cliff near Sumner on Sunday. Photo: Carl Devereux

MSD southern regional manager of family and community services, Moira Underdown, told Morning Report fewer people were using the service, but the ministry had funds on reserve, and anyone who said they needed counselling would get it.

"Certainly anybody who rings the 0800 number, who talks to their GP and indicates they have concerns or that they need some counselling as a result of the earthquake, they will be able to access that counselling in the way that they have done since the beginning of the earthquakes."

And Canterbury District Health Board public health specialist Lucy D'Aeth said she was not aware of anyone missing out as a result of the cuts.

It was possible to ramp up services if demand spiked after Sunday's quake, she said.

"We lost Relationships Aotearoa - MSD had to rejig that contract. As far as I am aware from looking at the figures of people are still accessing counselling, that was a reasonably smooth transition."

In 2014, the government pledged $13.5m to support core psychological services and initiatives in Canterbury over four years.

Two years later, it has already spent two thirds of its budget.

While there has been a $200,000 increase in funding for those forced to move out of their homes, the ministry said it has made no firm commitments to counselling services beyond the middle of the year.

The ministry has already put aside almost $50,000 for an expected spike in counselling services for this month's fifth anniversary of the 22 February 2011 earthquake.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

Youth services: (06) 3555 906

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)

The Word

Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

CASPER Suicide Prevention

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.