Health care: Out of reach - six-month wait for child who talks of dying

A suicidal 11-year-old is one of many on the waiting list for mental health services in Christchurch. (Image is a ...

A suicidal 11-year-old is one of many on the waiting list for mental health services in Christchurch. (Image is a recreation - not the actual child)

An 11-year-old Christchurch boy with unbearable anxiety and suicidal thoughts has waited more than six months for publicly-funded psychiatric treatment. 

Aiden*, plagued by terrifying thoughts beyond his control, has told his mother he does not want to continue living. 

He was first referred to the Canterbury District Health Board child and family mental health service by his school counsellor in December. 

At an assessment in February, staff said he needed treatment. He is still waiting and has a follow-up appointment on August 15. 

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​Aiden's story is not uncommon in Canterbury as parts of the mental health system experience unprecedented demand. 

On average, 250 young people began treatment with the service each month over the past year.

Aiden's mother, Kirsty, is frustrated by the wait. She has been coping with her son's trauma and growing distress since the day of the February 2011 earthquake. 

Triggers for his frequent panic attacks include a gust of strong wind or a thoughtless remark from a sibling or student. 

"If he starts thinking he's not good at something . . . he will get really upset. He will go to his room, he'll be crying, he hits his head against the wall when he's really upset and sad," she said.

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Support from a school counsellor was limited. Last term, Aiden saw her once.  

"She [the counsellor] does a few schools, she's not there full time, I'm not even sure she's there every week."

Kirsty, who did not want her surname used, said she expected more support.

"I'm a bit frustrated that it seems like the children are getting the raw end of the deal when it comes to all this, and there just doesn't seem to be enough support out there for them."

Aiden was the last child to be picked up from his school on February 22, 2011, because Kirsty was injured when a building in Lichfield St collapsed.

He suffered separation anxiety, lost bowel control for six months and was prescribed sleeping medication.

The February 14 earthquake this year increased his anxiety. 

He talks about "not wanting to be here anymore and dying", Kirsty said. 

"It's usually in the middle of the night when he's getting really worked up over things and just can't stop thinking and everyone else is in bed."

Kirsty took Aiden to the Emergency Department after a particularly severe panic attack and was told his appointment with a specialist would be brought forward. 

But two days later, she was told other cases were more urgent. 

Clinical director for child and youth mental health services Dr Harith Swadi said specialist psychiatric services were for those with an "acute or chronic, moderate to severe psychiatric disorder". 

Many referrals did not meet the criteria.

"The help that is really needed for young people now is up stream, early in the process when the difficulties are more manageable and they don't need specialist help."

Other problems, including under-achievement at school, challenging behaviour, autistic spectrum disorder or social difficulties did not, on their own, meet the criteria for the service. 

NZ Association of Counsellors Sarah Maindonald said the school-based mental health team provided support and advice for staff at 107 schools, rather than direct services for students. 

"They are not allowed to provide face-to-face therapy so it doesn't actually relieve demand. It's not their brief," she said. 

Many schools had waiting lists and counsellors knew some children were missing out. 

"Sometimes by the time you get further down the waiting list either something's sorted out or they might have given up."

Ferrymead GP Jeremy Baker said the number of people presenting with mental health concerns was growing.

"I think there has been remarkable generosity from GPs in Christchurch . . . but there is a smaller proportion who won't see the extra level of stress and will stick to the 15-minute consult time."

Pegasus Health clinical leader for mental health Rebecca Nicholls said GPs had struggled to help young people with more complex mental health needs since the earthquakes.

With specialist services under strain, it left GPs with few referral options.

In the past year, more GPs referred patients to non-government mental health providers instead, "but those NGOs are getting over-loaded now", Nicholls said.  

*Name changed to protect his identity.


• Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354
• Depression Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757 
• Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116
• Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666 
• Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
• Youthline (open 24/7) - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email 
• 0800 WHATSUP children's helpline - phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at
• Kidsline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors. 
• Your local Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
• Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.
• For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).

*Comments on this article have closed.

 - Stuff


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