Canterbury families 'struggling to cope' as children wait 'months' for mental health help

Recent figures show 60 per cent of children aged under 12 seeking help waited more than three weeks for a first ...

Recent figures show 60 per cent of children aged under 12 seeking help waited more than three weeks for a first appointment with Canterbury mental health services last year (file photo).

Canterbury children's mental health is deteriorating while they wait for months to access help, advocates say.

Recent Government figures show more than 450 children aged under 12 waited longer than three weeks for a first mental health appointment in Canterbury last year – equating to almost 60 per cent of those seeking help.

This was an increase on the previous year's figures.

In 2015, 41 per cent of children under 12 needed help waited more than three weeks – a total of 250 children.

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Child advocates said the wait did not stop at the first appointment – many children waited several months to get treatment after that.

In 2016, there was a 27 per cent increase in the number of under 12s needing mental health help. Services struggled to keep up, the figures show.

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Child and Family Psychologist and University of Canterbury lecturer Sarah Whitcombe-Dobbs said children waiting to get treatment were "likely to be in considerable distress" and their families "struggling to cope".

"Anecdotally in Canterbury, I hear that families are waiting up to six months for receiving treatment after they have had their first appointment because the services are so overwhelmed with need."

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Mental health problems left untreated in children could affect "all areas of functioning and development", including academic, social and emotional development.

Overwhelmed by the "massive unmet need", Whitcombe-Dobbs and a few other registered psychologists created a small pro-bono service two years ago for low-income families unable to access help.

"We all have a concern that children's mental health and special education needs are not adequately met through current government funding."

The service struggled to keep up with demand, she said.

Christchurch Methodist Mission social services division manager Sue van Deurs said most non-governmental organisations (NGOs) providing mental health support in Christchurch had a three-month waiting list or longer.

The health system often referred parents to NGOs while they waited for specialist mental health services, only for them to face another waiting list.

"Three months is a long time in the life of a child. Things escalate. It's hard for parents."

In many cases, it took at least six months for families to get treatment with specialist mental health services, she said.

Last year, the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) said 92 per cent of children referred to its mental health service waited longer than two months for a second appointment.

CDHB planning and funding manager Carolyn Gullery said reducing wait times was a key focus for child and family services. 

"Our focus has been on putting early supports in place at a primary and community level to prevent problems escalating."

Sometimes other agencies, including school-based mental health teams, were better equipped to provide support. 

Green Party health spokeswoman Julie Anne Genter said the mental health system was "stretched beyond breaking point" and a nationwide inquiry was needed.

Young children needed help as early as possible to avoid escalation to an acute stage.

"Our kids are worth investing in."

Labour health spokesman David Clark said children waiting to get help exposed "the failure of the current government to adequately fund mental health services".

The CDHB was funded "below national average" per head of population for mental health, despite growing demand post-quakes.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said Canterbury had "undoubtedly had an increase in demand for mental health services since the earthquakes".

The CDHB budgeted to spend around $153 million this year on mental health services – an extra $30m compared to seven years ago. 

The Government had provided an extra $106m to the CDHB over and above the population-based funding formula to meet the additional costs of recovery since the earthquakes.


• 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).

 - Stuff


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