7 Nov 2018

Porirua, Ōtaki sudden deaths: Authorities slammed for lack of response

1:21 pm on 7 November 2018

A mental health expert is calling health authorities' response woeful as Porirua and Ōtaki grapple with a spate of sudden deaths.

A teenage Māori boy looking unhappy

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The Kapiti Coast town has had four such deaths since mid-September, and Porirua East has had six since June.

Suicide Prevention Australia and National Māori Authority chairperson Matthew Tukaki says Ōtaki may well be bewildered at the lack of response to its crisis, but he is not because he has seen it all before.

"No, I'm not surprised, I'm not bewildered - my heart sinks for them," Mr Tukaki said.

"I've had conversations with members of the Porirua community, the Ōtaki community - that community lives that grief every single day and yet no one is there to support them."

Ōtaki College principal Andy Fraser would settle right now just for some back-up for his school's only counsellor, who's battling to identify any pupils who might be at risk.

Mr Fraser said MidCentral DHB apologised on Friday for its lack of response.

"What we need is a follow-up on the apology the DHB have made to us," he said.

"We've asked for a minimum of one day a week from a counsellor to support our current counsellor who's under immense pressure."

The school was now looking to pay for that themselves though they could not afford it, he said.

The first death, of a 15-year-old college boy, occurred in late September, but the boy's family had yet to hear from the mental health professionals at the DHB.

"Seven weeks on and not having anyone check on their support from a medical or trauma perspective is just not good enough.

"This is a big thing we're facing here - we're facing it here, we're facing it in other communities around the country."

The DHB was also missing in action after a girl student died a year ago, Mr Fraser said.

Local consultant Adrian Gregory will this week chair the first meeting of a new advisory group on health and well-being in the town of 6000.

"I just can't express how deeply this is felt by myself and my colleagues and the rest of the community," he said, adding for local parents that "we all want to support you in some sort of way. We will find a way of doing that very quickly indeed".

Ōtaki College principal Andy Fraser.

Ōtaki College principal Andy Fraser. Photo: Supplied

Mr Gregory and Mr Fraser both pointed to Ōtaki's urgent need for out-of-hours local mental health services, because there was no public transport service to get to services in Levin or Palmerston North during work hours, and families in crisis did not want to go outside the town for help anyway.

"Really the question of why aren't they [services] there now is a question for MidCentral [DHB], and I know that's been asked internally," Mr Gregory said.

Mr Tukaki said six years ago Australia was where New Zealand is at now, but a 2012 Senate inquiry into suicide began transforming its prevention services.

Suicide Prevention Australia and National Māori Authority chairman Matthew Tukaki.

Suicide Prevention Australia and National Māori Authority chairperson Matthew Tukaki says his heart sinks for the whānau involved in a spate of sudden deaths. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

It now had an evaluation hub to properly check if programmes worked; it had a research fund of $26 million a year; it had a 1500-strong network of support people who had themselves been through the trauma.

Meanwhile, New Zealand had endless consultations - the current mental health inquiry was in danger of being just another of these - led by an ineffectual Health Ministry while the DHBs contracted out the services, and out of their responsibilities, he said.

"There are things going on ... in some of these regions and some of these communities that would very much leave the average person to think, how could that occur in a well-developed first-world nation?"

Suicide prevention, training, research and programme evaluation were all very poor or virtually non-existent, Mr Tukaki said. The upshot, however, was that measures could have been taken years ago to improve them.

There was one area of progress: "We are making it okay for people to reach out for help in times of need. The problem is what we're doing is creating an insatiable demand for services that don't exist in number.

"So we turn up in these communities and we appear to be offering help, we appear to be offering change, we appear to be listening, and then everyone from the ministry, they all walk away."

MidCentral DHB: Action has been taken

The MidCentral DHB said its response was appropriate.

Mental health and addictions spokesperson Vanessa Caldwell said the right action was taken following the death of the 15-year-old schoolboy.

"There was a pre-agreed postvention plan which was done in conjunction with the college and other organisations. So that included [the Mid-Central DHB], Ministry of Education, Victim Support and youth services in the area.

"I do understand that rapid action was taken and I've also been advised that the agency who is dealing and interfacing with the family and supporting the family has been in contact with them and particularly followed up recently."

Ms Caldwell said the boy's family had now been contacted, and support was being provided through Victim Support.

"Victim Support engages with the whānau to provide practical and emotional support, and we have been advised that this service has engaged with the family of this student.

The DHB also apologised to Ōtaki College on Friday over communication issues.

She said it had since been confirmed that from next year one extra counsellor would go into Otaki College one day a week.

The spate of deaths had been confirmed as a cluster.

"Where there is a cluster we do have a postvention plan but deal with each situation individually so there support for each family involved for each scenario is quite different.

"It's definitely highlighted the need for community agencies to work closely together and we're really aiming to do that as part of the well-being plan."

She said the DHB had started consulting the community in order to develop a well-being plan and would work with the community, including the college, to develop more local mental health services and improve access to services further away.

"A couple of folks have mentioned the idea of after-hours facilities, and that is something we could consider in partnership with local providers."

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs