Hurt & Hope: Post-quake addiction and domestic abuse bring Cantabrians down
Since the February 2011 earthquake, charities and police have been forced to respond creatively with limited resources to the steep increase in addiction and domestic violence problems.
Eve Jones* didn't think she and her three children needed support – her ex-husband was the sick one.
He would hide bottles of vodka, pour water into the ones he'd secretly emptied and drink in his car.
In their 15 years together, he'd always liked a drink. But it became worse a couple of years after the February 2011 earthquake with the stress of living in a broken city. He had also lost a family member in the tremor.
He moved out of the family home in 2015 and it became clear he was an addict when he was made redundant from his job last year and did not tell anyone, Jones says.
"Everyone thought he was at work, but he was spending the day in his car, drinking.
"He was an incredible father and husband and it just, it took control of him … and made him do things in ways that weren't safe for our family," she says through tears.
She talks openly in front of her children – Lilly, 11, Blake, 8, and Poppy, 6 – in the family home. She doesn't want their father's disease to be a secret, something to be ashamed of. She shares her story in the hope it will inspire other families to seek help.
The Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB), police and not-for-profits have reported an increase in addiction and domestic violence issues in the past three years.
Immediately after the February 2011 earthquake, communities rallied together, neighbours talked to each other and support was easily accessible. There was a lull in crime and mental health presentations.
But suicide attempts, addiction, children with trauma, and domestic violence have reached new heights over the past three years.
While most frontline mental health workers interviewed for this series were reluctant to call the situation a crisis, they all agreed services were strained, under-resourced and dealing with severe issues.
ADDICTION BRINGING FAMILY DOWN
Despite the toll alcoholism took on her family, Jones was stunned a social worker asked whether she needed support when she tried to get her ex-husband into rehab last year.
"I didn't realise how broken the kids and I were. I thought I just had to suck it up and deal with it."
She contacted the Familial Trust, a Christchurch non-governmental organisation (NGO) providing support for families affected by a loved one's addiction.
"The minute I walked in there they were just incredible. They were so caring, so supportive.
"They made me realise … the kids and I needed protecting because I can't send my kids out in a car with someone who's drinking."
The trust helped Jones obtain a parenting order for a few months so the family could have some space while her ex-husband received the help he needed.
"Alcohol changes people you love into strangers and that's what it's done. The kids and I have to restart our whole relationship with him because we don't know that person … It's devastating. It's like a death."
Alcoholism is like an octopus, with its tentacles bringing everyone down, she says.
Her son, Blake, was the most affected by "losing his superhero" and had regular angry outbursts.
"He would lose his crap, he would punch holes in walls, he would punch holes in doors, he would try and kick me and I never had a boy like this, ever."
Regular group and individual counselling sessions helped.
"We taught him how to work it out, take a breath. These meltdowns are far and few between now, which is a blessing."
Group sessions helped Lilly come to terms with her father's struggles.
"She walked in and there were probably 40 other kids there and she said 'All these kids, they look normal'. And I said 'Baby you're normal, you've just got a sick parent' … and I think that made her realise she is actually OK."
Jones is also in a better place after a year of counselling.
"It's still hard to talk about because of the children and how much it has affected them … but the kids are thriving.
"We have our good days, we have our bad days but that's everyone, that's life."
AN EROSION OF RESILIENCE
Familial Trust co-founder Graeme Watson has a cold and sounds tired. We are reaching the end of a long winter of overwhelming need in the community, he says, sighing often.
"Last year, we were more exhausted than ever. People were really, really having to push themselves to get to the end of the year. It's similar this year."
Before the quakes, the trust helped about 2000 people each year. Over the past few years, that number has risen by about 30 per cent, with many people coming in with more complex needs.
But the little funding increase the organisation received post-quake has not matched the need.
The trust needs about $500,000 each year to keep providing services, half of which it gets in government funding.
He says the quakes happened at a time of financial austerity after the global financial crisis in 2008. The belt-tightening exercise meant that many NGOs did not receive cost of living increases from the Government between 2009 and 2016.
After February 2011, a real sense of community carried people through the hard times, Watson remembers.
"The first few months, we were all out there helping each other, taking food parcels to people's homes, checking on our neighbours. 'Ra ra team Christchurch'. We were all in this together."
But as the community spirit faded, normally resilient people started using drugs and alcohol to deal with the post-quake stresses.
"This is a continuing problem," he says.
Not-for-profit groups supporting addicts and their families and Canterbury's wider mental health sector have been running on empty over the last three years.
"More and more was put on to less staff. The pressure put on the mental health sector is enormous. I've never seen anything like it in my life," Watson says.
Despite reduced resources, the sector "has done exceptionally" thanks to increased collaboration between providers and staff working above and beyond, he says.
The CDHB created a one-stop-shop for alcohol and other drug addictions in 2015, merging several services together into a community hub.
But, he warns, "there is an erosion of resilience" and he doesn't know how much further staff working in the sector can be stretched.
Watson's biggest concern is the increase in methamphetamine use.
"A lot of money came into Christchurch, a lot of businesses popped up. Drugs followed the cash."
He says meth is not a drug that touches only the isolated and the poor.
"It's absolutely across the board, including well-to-do people running businesses. Meth starts out as the perfect drug – it's going to give you the energy to get done what you need to do."
Alcohol remains the "number one drug". It's accessible, legal and people self-medicate on it.
More than 70 per cent of people dealing with addiction have mental health issues as well and addiction problems impact negatively on at least four people in their whānau, according to the national committee for addiction treatment.
"We could do a little bit better where someone presents and has some kind of mental health disorder and might be self-medicating with alcohol and drugs."
Police have been a key partner in tackling the increase in demand post-quake, he says.
"I call them the number one mental health workforce in the country really. They're right at the front end of it."
NOT A DOOM AND GLOOM PERSON
Canterbury's top cop, Superintendent John Price, seems uncomfortable when asked if he agrees with Watson's assessment of police's role.
"It's complicated," he says.
"Police are available 24/7. We will always come if people need our help.
"But we're not experts in mental health. We're often the first port of call, but we work closely with our DHB. Our custodial suite is a triage point for mental health. We do a lot of referring to other agencies."
Price, who has spent more than a decade working as a officer in the city, was operations commander for police's response to the February earthquake and acting Canterbury district commander for several months before a stint in Wellington from 2012 to 2015.
Two years after returning, he says Canterbury is still dealing with "major problems".
"In my mind we're still seeing the rippling effects of the earthquakes and it will continue for some time.
"Families are under more stress. Arguments and conflict can escalate. When you peel back a layer of onion, very close to the surface is a lot of anxiety."
The number of police call-outs involving someone mentally unwell in Canterbury rose by 38 per cent between 2009 (1929 calls) and 2016-17 (2668 calls). The number of suicide call-outs almost doubled in that same period.
Price says police have been able to deal with the increase in mental-health related issues thanks to a "strong sense of collaboration" with the CDHB and the NGO sector.
Like many others interviewed for this series, Price cites international research "telling us that five to 10 years is a critical point" after a disaster.
And in Canterbury, it's not just the one disaster. Several major quakes, tens of thousands of aftershocks, floods and, earlier this year, the Port Hills fire. With each event, police had a spike in suicide call-outs, domestic violence incidents and addiction issues.
A "disproportionate number" of domestic violence incidents prompted a new model in 2016, which has 16 agencies working together. The services can wrap around the perpetrator, the victim and children.
A better model and more dedicated staff meant reporting increased, which was to be expected, Price says. It's also a good sign.
"It means people have the confidence to report what's happening."
What was not necessarily expected was an increase in the severity of the incidents, which is much more concerning for Price.
So do we have a crisis? "I don't want to be the doom and gloom person.
"We have a challenge … but as times goes by we'll start seeing a new vibrant city that will create more positivity in people's lives."
GET THE HELP
Until her ex-husband punched her in the face and stood over her with an axe, Sandra Brown* thought she could manage.
"I thought you had to be beaten to a pulp before you go and get support."
The 46-year-old's grandchild was sleeping in the spare room. Her ex-husband had been drinking and had "lost the plot".
"It was totally terrifying."
She managed to escape and call the police, who put her in touch with domestic violence not-for-profit Aviva (formerly Christchurch Women's Refuge).
Sandra was "an absolute mess". Her face covered in bruises, she alternated between panic attacks and sobbing for hours. She did not want to leave her house.
Aviva brought in food, face lotion and support.
Sandra was terrified her ex would come back, but could not afford to move out of her house.
Following the quakes, helping domestic violence victims has been a real challenge for agencies because of a lack of affordable housing.
Aviva marketing and funding manager Julie McCloy says in 2012 – when rents skyrocketed in Christchurch because of a surge in people renting while their houses were fixed – "clients couldn't leave a violent home because they had nowhere to go".
Demand was triple Aviva's funding, she says. They needed a new solution and it had to come fast.
They brought in a new service, Safe at Home, through domestic violence organisation Shine.
When a violent person leaves the home (voluntarily or through a police safety order), Safe at Home provides secure locks and a personal alarm to protect the family. Police come at the push of a button.
Brown says the personal alarm has been "amazing".
"It made me feel so much safer."
Her ex-husband has not bothered her since.
But beyond the safety aspect, Brown is grateful for the wrap-around support she received from Aviva, including weeks of group sessions.
For eight years she had endured physical and psychological violence, "but never done anything about it".
"I was too embarrassed to admit that's what was going on in my home."
A lot was not understanding that her relationship was toxic.
Through Aviva, she learned to recognise the signs of an abusive person.
"It's funny, I didn't know that when I was in it. It's really opened my eyes as to what he is and that he's not going to change."
Her message to women in abusive relationships is to "get the help".
"It's out there and it's good. Don't be too proud or too embarrassed to admit what's happening."
QUAKES BROUGHT EXISTING ISSUES TO THE SURFACE
Since it started, Safe at Home has secured more than 650 Christchurch homes. And it's just one of the many new initiatives that NGOs such as Aviva have brought in to answer a sustained spike in demand with limited resources.
Another success was the Reach Out programme, piloted with police in North Canterbury after increased family violence reports in 2012. Police offer support to the violent person when they attend an incident. Before that, perpetrators would only get support through the courts.
"Police found that men were willing to talk and wanted to talk," McCloy says.
The rate of reoffending in North Canterbury plummeted from 18 per cent before Reach Out was introduced to 1.4 per cent three years later.
It has since been expanded to the city and the Selwyn district and has supported mroe than 800 men since 2012. It won a policing award and was runner-up for an international award.
McCloy is visibly proud of the innovative work that has helped manage the sustained increase in calls for help since 2011.
Call numbers to Aviva have already reached a record high this year – almost double pre-quake levels – and the issues are more severe, McCloy says.
After February 2011, Aviva moved into temporary premises until shifting into The Loft at Eastgate Mall in 2016.
The collaborative space includes several agencies that lost their premises in the 2011 tremor and together they offer a wide range of collaborative services, including family, sexual violence, addiction, mental health and vulnerable children services, community law, Plunket, a medical centre and social workers.
Aviva now supports about 40 per cent more people than it did prior to 2010, due to increased demand and new services on offer. But the funding has not kept up, McCloy says.
Aviva must generate almost $2 million per year to keep going, with about 40 per cent of its income from government contracts. The rest needs to be generated through grants, donations and fundraising.
In 2011 and 2012, many Canterbury NGOs had an increase in donations from the public, community groups and government funding. Aviva received more than four times its pre-quake donations.
But just like the rising community spirit post-disaster, donation levels wound down and are now at half that peak level, she says.
The quakes exacerbated existing problems, be it mild mental health conditions, family violence or poverty, McCloy says.
But also people are now more likely to reach out for help thanks to positive messages spread out by campaigns such as All Right? and media shining a spotlight on available services.
"We're seeing a lot of issues that we may not have noticed before.
"The earthquakes uncovered something that we can't cover up again … We probably as a city talk a bit more about our social issues than we did before."
NGOs such as Aviva deal with issues affecting mental health, but are not mental health providers. But it's hard to be mentally well if you are not safe in your home.
They redirect people to the appropriate mental health providers when necessary, but long wait lists and costs can be a barrier, with free and low-cost services under pressure.
"We can't just leave it to the hospital to come up with a solution," McCloy says.
There is never enough funding and the city is still facing enormous challenges, but McCloy is hopeful.
"We are more willing and able to work collaboratively than ever before."
* Names have been changed to protect identities.
WHERE TO GET HELP
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 11pm)
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm - 6pm weekdays)
The Lowdown: thelowdown.co.nz - website for young people ages 12 to 19.
National Depression Initiative - depression.org.nz (for adults), 0800 111 757 - 24 hour service
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 www.mentalhealth.org.nz/suicideprevention.