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Doctor’s plea to save students

More resources, better co-ordination needed to prevent teen suicide, says GP

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A Wairarapa doctor says he is “shocked” by the level of mental health issues he is seeing in our young people, and wants more resources and better co-ordination to prevent teen suicide.

Featherston’s Harsha Dias, who has been working as a general practitioner for 20 years, wrote to Wairarapa District Health Board after seeing a high number of students with mental health issues at Kuranui College in Greytown, where he was working.

In his February letter to DHB chairman Sir Paul Collins, Dr Dias said there had been two serious suicide attempts since he had been at the school, and he was worried about “the high suicide rate in Wairarapa and the effect it is having on our youth”.

Wairarapa has the country’s highest suicide rate per capita.

He also outlined the need for a multi-disciplinary approach to tackle mental health issues in schools, including co-ordination between: a social worker, adolescent psychologist, general practitioner, and drug and alcohol counselling available on-site at school.

Dr Dias’ plea has got the backing of the college and the acknowledgement of the Ministry of Education, with the DHB also saying the system needs to be looked at.

Dr Dias said his experience working with youth in South Wairarapa had motivated him to write the letter.

In 2017 he had been chosen to provide school-based health services at Kuranui College.

He ran a clinic at Kuranui for a half day each week, where students could visit on their own and seek advice on a range of medical issues.

Speaking with the Times-Age, he said he was taken aback by the number of students seeking mental health advice.

“I’ve been quite shocked about the degree of mental health [issues] that I see down there.

“I think that this generation has more mental health issues than previous generations.

“Maybe it’s that they’re not so happy to sit and put up with it – that ‘suck it up and deal with it’ attitude is gone, thankfully.”

He said his request for better co-ordination of services was not unrealistic, expensive, or difficult to deliver.

He noted that having a social worker on site at the school may be the most expensive part, but said they didn’t need to be employed full-time.

He said Kuranui had an excellent school counsellor who often worked with very distressed young people.

“But they’re overwhelmed with the amount of work that they deal with.

“A team-based approach to these young people would be a good thing for schools in general – certainly for Kuranui.

“It would make it more effective.”

He praised the ‘To Be Heard’ programme — a Wairarapa based service which provided a range of mental health support services to youth.

“But I think it would be better if the person was in-house, working in the school.

“I think that around-the-table conversation is what’s lacking.”

In a written reply to Dr Dias, Mr Collins said that the recommendations and letter had been discussed by DHB chief executive Adri Isbister and Compass Health director of primary care, Liz Stockley.

“Adri and Liz agree that the design of the service needs to be considered once we have direction from the new government, particularly with regards to school-based health services, youth health services, and mental health.”

He said the letter echoed the DHB’s concern regarding Wairarapa’s suicide rate.

Kuranui College board of trustees chairwoman Belinda Cordwell said the school supported Dr Dias’ comments and agreed that a strategy should be put in place “to co-ordinate all the child and youth care in South Wairarapa, focusing on healthcare in primary and secondary schools”.

She said Kuranui was the only secondary school in South Wairarapa, and attracted students from a large geographical area.

“Many of our students live a long way from town and therefore access to health services outside of school hours is often difficult.”

Mrs Cordwell said the college offered excellent health services to students, but they were “dealing with more diverse issues than ever before”.

“We, like many schools nationwide, are very mindful that our students have complex mental, physical and social needs, and social pressures.

“These issues can be exacerbated when families have differing access to, and knowledge of, support services.”

The college supported Dr Dias’ vision for a multi-disciplinary health team based at the college, working with students and their families.

Ministry of Education spokeswoman Katrina Casey said they had spoken with the college.

“We will be seeking a meeting with Dr Dias and the school to further understand the concerns raised in the letter and how we might provide support.

“We know there’s a need for all agencies to work together to prevent and promote mental health issues, as the link between student well-being and achievement becomes increasingly clear.”

She said the government earlier this year announced an inquiry into mental health and addiction, which would make recommendations to improve a community-wide response to issues, and that the new approaches would likely have implications for education.

Where to go for help
These 24/7 free phones are operated by trained counsellors who can help you talk through problems and identify ways of coping.
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 54 (0800 KIDSLINE) supporting under 18 year olds
• Youthline: 0800 376 633, free text 234
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (supports 5-18 year olds, 1pm-11pm)
• Women’s Refuge Crisis Line: 0800 733 843
• Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757
• Samaritans: 0800 726 666
• Healthline: 0800 611 116
• Outline NZ: 0800 688 5463 (0800 OUTLINE) sexuality and gender identity issues

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