Families of Whakaari / White Island victims describe struggle to get counselling

9:46 pm on 7 December 2020

Families of people who died in the Whakaari / White Island eruption say it has been a battle to access grief counselling following the tragedy.

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White Island Tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman died in the eruption. Photo: Supplied / Facebook Liz Evans

This comes as Whakatāne mental health professionals are offering free counselling sessions around the eruption anniversary this week as they say there is a lack of publicly-funded support.

The government is promising to roll out greater mental health support at primary care level but admits it has not yet reached the Bay of Plenty.

Andrea Inman is the sister-in-law of White Island Tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman who died in the eruption.

She said his death had been difficult for extended family members who had struggled to access long-term counselling for a range of reasons.

"There is quite a shortage of counsellors in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, then it was the issue around funding and whether it applied to us or not."

ACC only covered work-related mental injury and mental injury that was the result of a physical injury so extended family members were not covered for funded counselling.

Inman said the Covid pandemic threw another spanner in the works due to constraints on meeting face-to-face and the sessions ended.

Some extended family members ended up getting funded support through the I Am Hope fund and paying for private counselling.

Inman said many people were confused about where to go for help.

"We are now a year down the track and people still need help, but that's the tricky part - who do you go to now? Even your GP doesn't know at times and have to do a lot of ringing around for you."

Whakatāne psychologist Veerle Poels was one of a group of 20 psychologists, counsellors and social workers who offered their time for free around the first anniversary of the Whakaari disaster.

Poels was worried about the barriers for those needing help.

"We find it very concerning that people don't know where to go. Even if they would like to go and see a private clinical psychologist or counsellor for instance, there might be some financial constraints that stop them from doing that."

Counsellor Irene Begg, who also offered her time for free, said while hospital staff and first responders could get counselling sessions through work, there's not much available for the general population.

She said many people were struggling, including families who had lost loved ones, lost their jobs or suffered vicarious trauma through hearing the stories of what happened through other people.

Health Minister Andrew Little said the Bay of Plenty DHB did its best to provide mental health support in the aftermath of the eruption.

He said that while the government was rolling out mental health support at a primary health care level, this had not yet reached the Bay of Plenty.

"It doesn't surprise me to hear that there may be some who perhaps aren't getting access to the mental health care and support that I know is available in other parts [of the country].

"The timing has taken longer, it's unfortunate."

Little said the community could call or text 1737 for 24/7 hour counselling.

Bay of Plenty District Health Board chief executive Pete Chandler said the DHB was monitoring demand but has not seen a significant increase in requests for help.

An ACC spokesperson said the government organisation had received 24 mental injury claims relating to the Whakaari eruption.

Two of these were declined because they did not meet the criteria.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said difficulty in accessing mental health support services had not been raised directly with her but she would follow up on whether there are concerns.

"Even in the aftermath I recall we were in Whakatāne being really worried, particularly by those who were around the event as well as those directly affected, particularly our health workforce and those first responders," she told Morning Report.

"In the immediate aftermath I know there was work being done there, but I will very happily follow up on whether or not the DHB has concerns over our ability to provide that support because it will be critical. Trauma from an event like this will continue for some time."

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