Experts are calling for a youth-appropriate mental health facility in Northland so young people no longer have to travel outside the region to access vital aid.
The appeal comes in the wake of a national report which highlighted the shortfalls in mental health support for young people, despite a deepening crisis.
The Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission report stated young Northlanders were among youth nationwide to be admitted into adult inpatient mental health services, due to a lack of resources regionally.
Data provided shows one in four young people in New Zealand between the ages of 12 and 17 people who received inpatient care were admitted to an adult mental health inpatient service.
Since 2018, 14 youths in Northland no older than 18 years old have been referred to adult inpatient mental health services - four of whom received a same-day discharge, according to Te Whatu Ora.
Te Whatu Ora Tai Tōkerau general manager of mental health and addiction services Ian McKenzie described the admission of young Northlanders into adult inpatient services as a “last resort”.
He said occasionally a young person - no older than 18 - would be admitted to an adult mental health unit until they could be transferred to the Child and Family Unit at Starship.
Northland does not have a youth-appropriate ward or facility. Only Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch have specialist units that provide inpatient mental health services for children and adolescents.
Generally, the rates of young people admitted to adult services are lower in those areas with specialist inpatient mental health services for children and adolescents.
“A youth-specific mental health inpatient service here in Northland would be our preference due to the challenges of distance for young people and their whānau, as well as with the transport required to get young people who are unwell to Auckland,” McKenzie said.
He explained that admission of a young person to an adult inpatient ward is rare and only occurs after discussions with them and their whānau and when it was thought to be in their best interest.
But when admission did happen, young people were normally cared for in a room off the main ward to avoid contact with adult patients.
“Where possible, we also try to arrange that nursing staff have child and youth experience in order to provide the best and safest standard of care,” McKenzie said.
While no formal complaints about the lack of facilities have been made to Te Whatu Ora - Te Tai Tōkerau, McKenzie said whānau often expressed their wish for options locally as travel to Auckland was a long haul.
Most comments were from people having to trek from the mid or Far North, however, some Whangārei-based whānau felt the same.
McKenzie said significant planning and resourcing would be needed to have a youth-specific inpatient unit in Te Tai Tōkerau.
Miriam Centre executive director Patsy Henderson Watt sees through her work as a child therapist a severe deficiency in the youth mental health space. She believed change was “critical”.
Henderson Watt has seen instances where young people have been referred to mental health aid only to be placed into the adult unit.
“It’s a terrible gap and it needs to be addressed,” she said.
Henderson Watt noted an instance where a school rang the crisis team for help, who then brought out two adults who appeared to have no understanding of te ao Māori, resulting in an intervention that was “unwittingly horrendous”.
“It was totally inappropriate,” she said.
She wanted to see a Northland residential unit to prevent young people aren’t placed into an adult system as it doesn’t cater to their specific needs.
Dr Terryann Clark, professor and Cure Kids chair in child and adolescent mental health, said helpful responses to mental health were needed, given the higher levels of distress among young people.
“It’s really important to remember that hospitalisation is just one of the tools in the toolbox for people. Most children and young people can be treated really well in their communities with their whānau and friends,” Clark said.
She said support needed to be developmentally and culturally appropriate for young people needing respite support.
“We’ve been fighting for adolescent-specific services for a long time,” Clark said. “It must be terrifying being in the adult service and thinking this is your future”.
As the mental health sector remains stretched, schools are heavily relied upon to provide students with access to mental health support.
Mental Health and Addiction Services data showed in the last four years, around 14 per cent of child and adolescent mental health referrals were from Northland schools. School referrals enable secondary-level intervention and advice to occur.
But schools and counsellors feel overwhelmed by the number of students in distress and the complexity of their issues.
Te Manihi Tumuaki Northland Principals’ Association chair Alec Solomon said the mental health demands seen in the education sector in the last couple of years were unmatched.
“I think it’s never been more difficult for our rangatahi [young people]. They’re navigating unchartered territory with Covid but also the impact and effects of social media and the like, and currently, the resource simply doesn’t meet the need,” Solomon said.
He called for early intervention to prevent young people needing acute mental health care.
“There will be some people that will end up in that really high-end crisis regardless, but my strong wondering is if support was offered earlier, could we have prevented anyone getting to the point where they need to be an inpatient in a mental health facility?”
He thought help should begin at primary school level.
A lack of inpatient facilities in Northland came as no surprise to Solomon.
“I’d love to say yes, that does shock me but no, because that’s the reality we’re in. We’ve got used to the resource not meeting the need.”
Brodie Stone is the education and general news reporter at the Advocate. Brodie recently graduated from Massey University and has a special interest in the environment and investigative reporting.
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1 pm to 11 pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Helpline: 1737
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.