Suicidal teens wait months to get help

Teenagers at risk of suicide are waiting up to three months to get the help they need, school counsellors say.

A lack of resources meant secondary school students with medium to severe mental health issues, including frequent suicidal thoughts, were at risk of dying, according to New Zealand Association of Counsellors spokeswoman Sarah Maindonald.

"Last year I dealt with a girl in Christchurch who was self-harming and had post-traumatic stress disorder related to the earthquakes and it took 3 months for her to be seen."

At a recent meeting of school counsellors from across the country all reported that more counsellors and better resourcing of specialist youth mental health services are needed for at-risk teenagers.

"We have to manage the risk until those students can be seen and their symptoms often worsen over the months it takes them to be seen," Ms Maindonald said.

Masterton mother Toni Ryan, who found the body of her 16-year-old son Sam in their home last June, said the current ambulance at the bottom of the cliff strategy wasn't working.

"I can see why school counsellors are getting frustrated because more money needs to go into helping medium risk teenagers who are actually more responsive to counselling and getting help."

Most funding went into critical care to target an identified problem, but that did little to prevent the problem occurring in the first place, she said.

An Auckland University study last month showed 21 per cent of secondary school students were either distressed, have mental health issues or were engaged in risky behaviour.

But Ministry of Health director of mental health, Dr John Crawshaw, said district health boards have crisis teams available to respond on the same day to young people presenting with a high risk of suicide.

The targets for district health boards for medium risk children and youth were that 80 per cent of non-urgent referrals would be seen within 3 weeks and 95 per cent within 8 weeks by the middle of 2015.

Currently, 76 per cent of 12 to 19-year-olds were seen within 3 weeks and 93 per cent within 8 weeks, Dr Crawshaw said.

School-based health services have also been rolled out in decile one and two secondary schools and 36 of 47 decile three schools as part of the Prime Minister's Youth Mental Health project.

"Low decile schools were chosen as young people in these areas have lower access rates to primary care," Dr Crawshaw said.

But Ms Maindonald said suicidal risk didn't always discriminate based on social backgrounds.

Secondary Schools Principals' Association president Tom Parsons said it was well known that school counsellors were dealing with more at-risk students on a daily basis.

"As a result the pastoral care systems in place are much better and school counsellors get a lot of support from principals," he said.

More teenagers were seeking help from counsellors and phone helplines were reporting huge increases in calls that they weren't resourced to answer.

In the last year, the 0800 What's Up helpline received 325,488 calls from across New Zealand, but staff were only able to answer 38 per cent because of a lack of funding and resources.

Similarly, Youthline struggles to answer the more than 54,000 calls they receive from 18,000 people every year.

Three fulltime staff and 500 volunteers worked hard to answer the phones, but even still they could only manage to speak to 65 per cent.

SEEKING HELP People in crisis or concerned about someone who may be in crisis can call these confidential helplines:

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Samaritans: 0800 726 666

Depression: 0800 111 757

The Dominion Post