Speaker by Various Artists


The Shaken Generation

by Kyle MacDonald

Children are empathic sponges.  The environment they find themselves in, soaking up and feeling what those around them feel, unavoidably affects them.  This is no truer than with anxiety, and now five years on from the beginning of the earthquakes in Canterbury, those who have known no other reality than post-earthquake Christchurch are starting school.

At the time of the initial quakes the National government made much of the ongoing support that the people of Canterbury would need and the government's commitment to fund this, in part via specific funding for ongoing counselling for those experiencing psychological distress as a result of the earthquakes.

Now, nearly five years on, this funding is being slashed, and in addition the Canterbury District Health Board is being forced to cut Mental Health service provision as a result of unavoidable funding shortfalls, a direct consequence of increases in demand.

In both cases the Ministry of Health’s position has been “there is no problem, and funding is adequate.”  Of course, the Minister of Health remains silent on this matter: it has quite clearly been his strategy to make no comment on mental health funding while he holds the portfolio, except of course to express concerns about the “financial performance” of the various regions' services.

But despite the blanket denials being issued by the Ministry of Health officials, the reality is quite different.  Anecdotally, there are multiple reports of children arriving at school developmentally delayed, struggling socially and with high levels of anxiety: all at rates way beyond “normal”. 

And the evidence is not just anecdotal.  Canterbury District Health Board has seen an increase in demand of 67% for child and adolescent mental health services, with verified reports of waitlists of many months for an initial psychiatrists assessment.

Let’s be clear: the struggles that are now well-documented are not due to abuse, or bad parenting.  It’s due to the chronic effects of living under the ongoing fear of further quakes, the stress of dealing with insurance companies and the chronic background noise of devastation and challenge that the earthquakes has caused for families and parents.

For adults the news is no better:

Funding information for the Canterbury District Health Board's (CDHB) upcoming financial year, obtained by Stuff, shows the discrepancy between the region's mental health funding and the national average growing larger.

This is alongside a 55% increase in suicide related calls to the Canterbury police, in the last year, as compared to per-earthquake levels in 2011.

All of this makes the ministry's claim that there is no evidence of an increase in demand frankly absurd.  What’s also deeply frustrating to those who work in this field is that we knew how this was going to play out in 2011. 

International experience in natural disaster trauma predicts that we should expect that the initial community support and coming together is protective, and that anxiety, depression, substance abuse and PTSD impacts tend to be delayed, in many cases for years afterwards.

Of course, research aside, the situation is abundantly clear to the people of Canterbury who continue to be deeply affected by the events of the last five years, as are the children growing up under the effects of chronic stress and uncertainty, with exhausted parents and communities.

I’ve come to believe, somewhat cynically, that you can divide the world into those who understand and are compassionate towards the effects of trauma, and those who don’t. 

It would be nice to think that the Ministry of Health and Jonathan Coleman might get it.  Unfortunately we have a Health Minister than is more interested in financial performance than people’s wellbeing and a government that has a track record of slashing counselling services and underspending on public mental health services.

And of course last weekend's quake just underlines that for those in Canterbury, the after-effects go on and on.  However the message from this Government is now very clear:  Canterbury, just get over it.

Kyle MacDonald is a psychotherapist, blogger, and regular co-host on the long running mental health radio show “The Nutters Club.”  He is also the Chair of Public Issues for the New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists. 

For more see: www.psychotherapy.org.nz

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