At one Rotorua intermediate school, the onsite social worker has met with over a third of the school population. That equates to more than 100 young people seeking help of their own accord or on the referral of others. This was within the social worker’s first term, their first 12 weeks in the role. These numbers increase daily.

One teacher from the same school notes that 20 out of the 29 young people enrolled in the class have received some type of emotional/wellbeing support service.

It is an overwhelming workload. But, because of a lack in funding, the availability of this social worker is split between several schools.

World leaders in letting young people die

New Zealand is the undisputed champion at rugby, at sailing and at rowing. We, as a nation, are also champions at letting our young people die.

This harsh fact follows a recent UNICEF report that crowns Aotearoa New Zealand as a runaway leader in failing youth who experience mental health issues – issues that often result in suicide.

The report focuses on teenagers who are between the age of 15 and 19 and for that age range New Zealand’s suicide rate sits atop, undisputed and unchallenged when compared with other countries in the developed world.

In numbers per 100,000 young people, 15.6 will commit suicide. Young lives, families and whānau that could be ripped apart, by rope, pill, bullet
or knife.

Now numbers can lie, they can con and contrive and, in the issue of youth mental health, they can conceal. The figure of 15.6 per 100,000 may not provide a shock reaction; the kind of ‘slap you in the face’ statistics flaunted by politicians or infomercials.

However, to provide a broader context, New Zealand has a youth suicide rate that is twice that of the US and almost five times that of the UK.

Or to look at it another way, the chances of parents having a son or daughter commit suicide are about the same as their chances of winning $55 in a New Zealand Lotto draw. When was the last time you, your family or whānau won some money from the lottery? Could you imagine if it was the other?

New Zealand media is already awash with increasing reports on mental health issues particularly amongst our youth. So how do we confront this crisis that is engulfing our country, our communities?

Aotearoa has a proud heritage with the number eight wire approach and in many respects our society is a success. However, this mental health crisis is not something to be ‘fixed’ like a car aerial or a kitchen table with an uneven leg. What young people, their family and whānau need is specialised mental health support.

More specialist support needed at primary and intermediate levels

Help is needed sooner, rather than later. Action must be taken to address this crisis from the front, not the back. What these young people need is not more ambulances at the bottom of the cliff, but more fences at the top. Funding needs to be – no, must be increased to enable greater access for intermediate-aged children to these specialised services.

In New Zealand a staggering 12,000 children every year between the ages of five and 14 exhibit suicidal behaviours. Many primary schools or intermediates lack adequate resources to provide a full-time counsellor, youth or social worker. This must change.

I am not a trained psychologist, overworked social worker or counsellor and nor are those with whom I am attempting to take this action. Bar empathy and concern, I have no automatic right to address this ‘issue’. I am, however, soon to be a father. My beloved child, like many across Aotearoa will be born into a loving and supportive home, to parents who will have the resources to make specialist
care available.

Sometimes though, this is not enough.

Not that children ever should, but what if a young person feels too ashamed to talk to their family or whānau about, for example, ongoing bullying or sexuality/gender confusion? They may feel they need someone else to turn to, without their perceived embarrassment of involving their caregivers.

The young people most at risk, however, are those who do not have supportive homes and/or supportive parents. These environments, often associated with other social factors, precipitate genetic predispositions for mental health problems to show.

Sadly, there are also many – too many – families who simply do not have the means to provide their much-loved children with access to the specialised support they may need to be able to keep them safe.

Where better to provide this access than at a location where young people spend approximately 35 hours per week within a secure and safe environment? Adding to this, it has been proven that help in a safe environment can increase the effectiveness of care and the implementation of healthy coping mechanisms. So for many of our young people, getting this mental health support within the school environment is their only option, their only hope.

Implementing these much-needed support services into all primary schools and intermediates across New Zealand would provide all our young people with the opportunity to talk and most importantly to be heard.

Mental health, like loss and feeling lost, doesn’t discriminate. Let’s make support always available for all our young people. Now – before it’s too late.

Rowan Edwards is a student at Massey University. You can sign his group’s petition to increase and provide adequate funding for mental health services across all intermediate and primary schools in Aotearoa New Zealand at www.change.org.

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