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Weathering the storm in our minds

Although the number of people seeking mental health support through their general practitioner has jumped 30 per cent in Hawke’s Bay since Cyclone Gabrielle, Te Whatu Ora has not reported an upward trend for Wairarapa.

However, local mental health professionals are still seeing high demand for help.

“While numbers of referrals fluctuate month-on-month, MHAIDS services in Wairarapa have not observed an increase in referrals after Cyclone Gabriell,” said Paul Oxnam, executive and clinical director of Te Whatu Ora mental health, addiction, and intellectual disability service [MHAIDS].

“Referrals can come from a number of sources, including GPs, non-government organisations, and other healthcare providers.

He acknowledged, however, that there is a two-month lag between referral and treatment.

Oxnam said the most recent data showed that Wairarapa people are waiting an average of 25.4 days for an initial face-to-face appointment, although this figure does not reflect the number of people referred urgently and seen within a few days.

East Coast Rural Support Trust Wairarapa area coordinator and clinical psychologist Sarah Donaldson said it is hard to separate normal demand from the cyclone because they are still responding to it.

“It has increased from the cyclone because sometimes it brings other things to a head.”

Donaldson said there has also been a “steady stream” of requests for support in the past few years.

The Rural Support Trust offers free and confidential support to those in need.

Donaldson said she and her team can visit people on their farm or meet them in town and confidentially sit down and chat about their challenges and try and work out a plan to help.

“We’re out and about, but it’s also about trying to help with practical solutions: what else do you need practically that’s going to help take the pressure off you emotionally.”

The trust has been recommending that people talk to their GP, especially if they’re not sleeping.

Donaldson said it is also important that people keep their “eyes and ears open for each other” to get through winter.

“We want to come through winter with people still here and okay.”

She added that if fatigue is getting people down, they should make sure they take breaks and reset.

ChangeAbility manager Jeremy Logan said although it’s not directly attributable to Cyclone Gabrielle, his practice has been seeing an increase in referrals.

As if to illustrate his point, while speaking to the Times-Age, Logan received two new referrals within about eight minutes.

ChangeAbility is receiving about five referrals per day, and the service has a waitlist of about a month, he added.

“We’re finding an increase in referrals for people with mental health issues and the increased complexity of issues people are turning up with.”

Logan said about half of the counselling service’s work is to do with family violence, which he noted will increase with financial pressure and other adverse factors.

The Royal Australia and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists said social isolation as a result of distance is an important factor in the mental health and wellbeing of rural people.

“Geographic isolation can also affect access to mental health services: the closest mental health service may be several hours’ drive away.”

The college also noted a culture of self-reliance in rural areas can make people reluctant to seek help.

“Additionally, there can be considerable stigma attached to mental illness, even more so than in cities.

“Therefore, patients in rural areas are often less likely to report mental health problems,” Logan said.

Although the college said this information applied specifically to rural communities in Australia, it confirmed it applies to New Zealand’s rural communities too.

Donaldson said that even though people have been struggling, it is important to note that, for the most part, people in flood-affected areas have felt supported.

“They haven’t always felt like they have been recognised as much as the other areas, but they have said they have had amazing support from their community and the wider community.”

The fact that people cared and were prepared to support others “I think has been massively protective”.

Donaldson said feeling pressured or low after an event like Cyclone Gabrielle is to be expected.

“Yeah, you’re having a normal response to something abnormal that has happened.”

After Cyclone Gabrielle, Dr Lauren Vinnell – Lecturer of Emergency Management at Massey University’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research – said the recovery from the cyclone will take a long time.

“Many people will still require mentalhealth support while processing this event, as well as dealing with ongoing challenges such as insurance claims, rebuilding, relocating, and coping with lost livelihoods.”

Vinnell said it is crucial that services are available as widely as possible and appropriate for the people engaging with them – and that they reach people who are usually less likely to reach out for help.

    If you or someone you know is struggling, Rural Support Trust can be reached for free and confidentially on 0800 787 254.

Grace Prior
Grace Prior
Grace Prior is a senior reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with a keen interest in environmental issues. Grace is the paper’s health reporter and regularly covers the rural sector, weather, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and coastal stories.

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