A Whakatāne counselling service heavily involved in the Whakaari/White Island eruption response has been deemed one of the country's best.

The Eastern Bay Primary Health Alliance's mental health team supported victims of the eruption, first responders, whānau and friends through debriefs and subsequently took on an influx of referrals.

The team is one of two finalists up for the New Zealand Primary Healthcare Awards best mental health programme prize.

Their service focuses on short-term counselling support for youth and adults with mild to moderate mental health challenges, and 91 per cent of clients rate it is as excellent to very good.

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The team - Jan Fremantle, Hiria Shanks, Urika Kihi, Trent Hape, Julie Bristowe, Jeff Bristowe, Jenny Sinclair and Lorraine Saunders - is led by Jamie Sullivan.

Their combined backgrounds include social work, nursing, drug and alcohol services and youth work.

Some staff are Māori and offer kaupapa Māori counselling, and counselling in te reo.

Sullivan told the Rotorua Daily Post the recognition was "humbling" when there were "amazing people" in services in New Zealand.

"They go out every day to do their best with what resources they have."

In the five years, he has worked with the team, their number of annual referrals has quadrupled from 250 to more than 1000 but the level of resourcing has stayed much the same.

To cater for the demand, they have centralised their team, run counselling groups in conjunction with other services, and have a memorandum of understanding with another organisation to share resources where needed.

In the youth space, staff try to take a "whole-school approach" alongside one-on-one sessions.

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"We just talk to them in general around drugs, alcohol, anxiety and depression. We don't wait for them to have an issue with that."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a St John staff member while meeting first responders after the Whakaari eruption. Photo / File
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a St John staff member while meeting first responders after the Whakaari eruption. Photo / File

When Whakaari erupted, the service was made available to anyone who needed it.

Referrals weren't required.

This led to "a lot of responses" mainly from first responders.

It wasn't the first time the service had catered for such an influx - it did the same after the Edgecumbe flood in 2017.

Residents and volunteers clear up waste after the Edgecumbe flood in 2017. Photo / File
Residents and volunteers clear up waste after the Edgecumbe flood in 2017. Photo / File

To care for the mental health of his staff, Sullivan said he had needed to make "major calls" in the past.

"My staff do trust me to come to me with pretty much anything that's happening."

The team uses flexible working hours to give staff "time out for self-care".

"That's really important and it's often one of the things gets missed with these types of people. They work really hard."

The winners of the New Zealand Primary Healthcare Awards will be announced at an awards gal in Auckland on February 29.