Thousands of Kiwi kids waiting for mental health treatment

Kevin Stent/Fairfax NZ

Lynne Russell whose daughter has attempted suicide on several occasions,open up about the mental health system.

A vulnerable Wellington teenager was sent home from a hospital emergency department on her own, despite the pleas of her anguished mother.

Ministry of Health documents show thousands of mentally unwell young people, assessed as non-urgent, wait longer than eight weeks for a second appointment after an initial assessment.

Under a ministry target for District Health Boards, 95 per cent of youth referred to mental health services should have their first treatment within eight weeks.

Lynne Russell on Petone Beach with her 21-year-old daughter, who has attempted suicide on several occasions.
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

Lynne Russell on Petone Beach with her 21-year-old daughter, who has attempted suicide on several occasions.

The figures reveal 3297 children and teenagers, or 26 per cent of all cases in DHB mental health services, waited longer than eight weeks for follow up treatment in the 2014-15 year.

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Wellington woman Lynne Russell's experience is typical of families struggling to access strained mental health services. 

Her daughter was deeply affected by her father's  suicide eight years ago.

Russell found it "almost impossible" to get affordable counselling for her and her other teenagers.

At 14, her daughter had developed depression and made the first of many suicide attempts.

As a result she was referred to the Hutt Valley District Health Board (DHB) child and family mental health service.

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Follow-up treatment came quickly as she was deemed high-risk.

But when treatment ended, Russell felt the family were left to cope with her daughter's still fragile mental health.

Her depression continued throughout her teenage years and Russell's fear that her daughter would attempt suicide was constant. 

"My experience is of ringing the crisis mental health team and saying I have a suicidal teenager and being told they just didn't have the staff to cope."

At 19, Russell's daughter made another suicide attempt when her mother was out of the country and she was hospitalised for two nights.

Despite Russell's pleas, her daughter was discharged before she could get home.

"No-one listened to us. So, we had a 19-year-old  mother who had made a serious suicide attempt, not her first... whose father suicided and whose mother – her main source of support – was out of the country, and yet the DHB sent her home."

Senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Massey University Dr John Fitzgerald said there was no set criteria for determining which patients would wait longer than others, but this was determined by each DHB according to levels of need and their mental health budget. 

Fitzgerald said staffing shortages and a lack of resources made it impossible to treat youth urgently after an initial assessment.

Minister of Health Jonathan Coleman said 74 per cent of clients waited less than eight weeks for their second face-to-face appointment.

"At the first appointment a clinical assessment is done and a treatment plan put in place. If it's appropriate to have an appointment on another date this is scheduled, and if urgent they are seen within 48 hours."

The number of young people waiting longer than eight weeks varied across all 20 DHB services from 10 per cent in Wairarapa to 53 per cent in Lakes District DHB.

In Canterbury, 37 per cent of clients were waiting longer than two months.

Funding for mental health and addiction services increased from $1.1 billion in 2008/09 to more than $1.4b for 2015/16, Coleman said.

Demand for treatment grew in all but three DHBs – Lakes, Tairawhiti and West Coast – over the past three years. Waitemata DHB had the highest growth. 

Christchurch Methodist Mission executive director Jill Hawkey said staff were well aware of long waiting lists for second appointments, as child and adolescent mental health services only take children with severe mental health issues.

"The Methodist Mission are often referred those who have been turned down, as the child's mental health is considered to be only mild or moderate."

Long waiting times increased stress and tension in families, Hawkey said. 

The Green Party is calling for a national inquiry in to mental health services. 

"The child's behaviour may escalate and the stress of this on families can lead to increased alcohol and/or drug use and family violence," health spokeswoman Julie Anne Genter said.

"Mental health services are struggling all around the country because of Government cuts to the health system, and our vulnerable young people are paying the price with their lives."  

Suicide helplines

* Lifeline: 0800 543 354 - Provides 24 hour telephone counselling

* Youthline: 0800 376 633 or free text 234 - Provides 24 hour telephone and text counselling services for young people

* Samaritans: 0800 726 666 - Provides 24 hour telephone counselling.

* Tautoko: 0508 828 865 - provides support, information and resources to people at risk of suicide, and their family, whānau and friends.

* Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to midnight)

* Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm - 6pm weekdays)

If it is an emergency or you feel you or someone you know is at risk, please call 111

For information about suicide prevention, see http://www.spinz.org.nz.

 - Sunday Star Times

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