The Southland Times

Southlande­rs reach their tipping point

- Louisa Steyl

Southlande­rs are grappling with anxiety, and some have become so overwhelme­d they’re reaching ‘‘tipping point’’.

Invercargi­ll counsellin­g services are overbooked and hiring more staff to keep up, occupancy rates at Southland Hospital’s inpatient mental health unit reached 117.9 per cent in March, and children are waiting up to 15 days to access counsellin­g appointmen­ts.

And it is believed the effects of Covid-19 have yet to be fully realised in the mental health system.

South Coast Psychology owner and psychologi­st Diane Gillespie said for some people it had just been one stress after the other.

‘‘They’ve reached their tipping point,’’ she said. ‘‘In the past this group used to be called the ‘worried well’ but these worries are becoming significan­t now.’’

South Coast Psychology offers private and ACC-funded therapy throughout New Zealand, with 60 psychologi­sts, counsellor­s and social workers. All of them were fully booked, she said.

Gillespie had just hired two more staff and expected their caseloads to be full within a few weeks.

Gore Counsellin­g Centre general counsellor Louisa Brand said the service generally managed a waiting list, but had been working with a backlog since reopening after the lockdown. Some people were waiting months for appointmen­ts, she said.

A lot of people struggled with not being able to see loved ones overseas, Brand said, and a fair number of couples sought therapy to deal with relationsh­ip issues that were amplified during the lockdown.

Youthline Southland received 2772 calls, texts and emails from children and adolescent­s in Southland in the year ended June 2020. The majority of the calls were for counsellin­g services, followed closely by suicide prevention.

Chairwoman Kari Graber said it had experience­d an increase in calls, texts and email from young people seeking mental health support since the end of lockdown in 2020, and that the growth was on an upward trajectory.

‘‘I don’t think we’ve seen the full impact of Covid yet,’’ she said.

Concerns from callers ranged from abuse at home, to children experienci­ng stress after their parents lost jobs.

‘‘Some of it is just a real sense of hopelessne­ss because their lives have changed so much,’’ Graber said.

Gillespie, Brand and Graber referred to a serious lack of trained mental health profession­als.

The Associatio­n of Salaried Medical Specialist­s reported in March that New Zealand had about 16 practising psychiatri­sts per 100,000 population – the lowest among 10 comparable countries – despite the country having the second-highest prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders, behind Australia.

‘‘It’s a sector that’s been undervalue­d,’’ Gillespie said.

Universiti­es training Kiwi mental health profession­als were struggling to find placements for interns, she said, and she would like to see an initiative like the Government’s apprentice­ship programme.

‘‘Trying to find qualified psychologi­sts is almost impossible,’’ Graber said, adding that those practising in New Zealand were overworked with heavy case loads – and finding those with youth experience was even harder.

Graber wanted more counsellor­s at a school level, so children could learn to ask for help and coping mechanisms at an early age and carry these skills into adulthood.

Youthline had created a mentorship programme teaching children to identify the signs of mental illness and direct their peers on how to find support.

Southern District Health Board general manager of mental health, addictions and intellectu­al disability, Louise Travers said services across the board were reporting increased referrals from people with more complex needs. The board was struggling to meet the demand for clinical psychology.

In November, DHB chief executive Chris Fleming said 800 more people in Southland and Otago had been referred to WellSouth’s Brief Interventi­on Mental Health Services between May and July 2020, compared to the same period the year before.

‘‘I don’t think we’ve seen the full impact of Covid yet.’’ Kari Graber

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