Jacinda v David: think of the children when disaster strikes

Despite the trauma of the earthquake, Canterbury DHB receives less funding for mental health services than the rest of ...
Don Scott

Despite the trauma of the earthquake, Canterbury DHB receives less funding for mental health services than the rest of New Zealand.

OPINION: I was 6 years old when the Edgecumbe earthquake struck at 1.42 pm. I was standing in my classroom in Galatea, 58 kms from the site of the quake.

Even at that distance the ground shook so violently my teacher froze. I can still picture her in the middle of the room with her tidy black bob, a look of terror on her face as she dropped the large boom box she had been holding.

Until that point, I don't really remember ever learning about what to do in an earthquake which is probably why almost the entire class ran to the windows to figure out what was going on – all of us except our frozen, terrified teacher.

Jacinda Ardern: ne of the best things we could do for the children of Canterbury is help ensure they have stoic, ...
PETER MEECHAM / FAIRFAX NZ

Jacinda Ardern: ne of the best things we could do for the children of Canterbury is help ensure they have stoic, well-supported parents.

That was just one shake, almost 30 years ago, and I remember it vividly to this day. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be a child in Canterbury, let alone an adult trying to console that child, while rebuilding their family situation, and their nerves.

I doubt you ever really get used to the ground moving under you. And yet we wrongly perceive children to have extreme levels of resilience – research suggests the contrary.

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As Keryn O'Neill, a researcher at the Brainwave Trust points out in Stress: The good, the bad and the ugly, "being too young to talk about stress does not mean being too young to be effected by it."

The numbers back that up. In the past three years, 60 per cent more children have needed mental health support in the Canterbury region.

What do you do for these children? You help them, but just as critically you help their parents.

Having a consistent, loving adult who can support a child when they're experiencing stress has been shown to be the difference between a child whose development is harmed, and one who recovers.

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This is true of events such as earthquakes – in fact, as O'Neill points out "in situations of natural disaster, it has been found that parental responses have a greater impact on the child, than the degree of exposure the child has to the disaster itself".

One of the best things we could do for the children of Canterbury is help ensure they have stoic, well-supported parents. Instead, we gave them insurance battles, dragged out repairs, school closures, and on top of that, depleted services.

You would expect, for instance, that Canterbury DHB would have had a pretty reasonable boost to its mental health funding to deal with increased need following the harrowing experience of the past five years. After all, suicide-related callouts to police in the Canterbury region have doubled since 2011, and in the past three years, the number of people showing up to the emergency department with mental health issues has doubled, too.

But in spite of these alarming figures, the Canterbury DHB receives less funding for mental health services per person than the rest of the country.

Yes, you read that correctly: not only has the government refused to lend more support, it has offered less. Sure there was a one-off cash injection, but that was to cover the not-unreasonably sized deficit the Canterbury DHB was facing in 2015.

We know the damage that has been done, and will continue to be done unless something changes. Children need their parents to be resilient, and parents, and the people of the Canterbury generally, deserve to be well supported.  After an enormous amount of pressure, the Minister of Health has finally said he is 'listening.' Let's hope it's with ears wide open.

David Seymour responds:

In post-earthquake mental health Jacinda raises a very real concern. This is one of the largest disasters by human impact to occur anywhere, let alone in New Zealand, and the trauma has been enormous.

That said, we shouldn't lose sight of the warmth that the Canterbury Earthquakes brought out in our society.  The shakes brought out the very best in people – and I don't mean the Government response.

The crisis showed how a strong community like Canterbury's can move fast and on huge scale – sometimes eclipsing the government response. We saw this in the inspiring actions of the Volunteer Student Army, and the $128 million publicly raised through the Red Cross.

It was a New Zealand crisis centred in Canterbury and felt around the world. I and many of my North Islander friends donated, even if we lived overseas at the time because we felt connected by nationhood.

The non-profit initiatives have been countless, from the Canterbury Earthquake Children's Trust, to the Gap Filler installation project, to the variety of anxiety and personal support services. And then there are the businesses, local and national, which have pitched in to keep these projects running.

No government will ever get everything right, and it's especially easy to point out mistakes and shortfalls in hindsight.  Luckily we live in a country where people know Government can't solve every problem, and are prepared to put their hands in their own pockets to help.

 - Sunday Star Times

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