"You can get help before you get to those dark points."
That's the message of 16-year-old Frankie Perry who is sharing her story as part of Great Minds, a major NZ Herald and NZME editorial project launched yesterday. The project will examine the state of our mental health and solutions for improving wellbeing as the country recovers from the pandemic.
The project comes as new research shows the number of New Zealanders struggling with mental health problems rose sharply during the Covid-19 outbreak prompting calls from leading health figures for an urgent national recovery plan.
Frankie hopes telling her story will prevent others from experiencing what she has gone through.
"I want kids to know they are not stuck, they do have options, they can get help."
Frankie experienced severe anxiety from age 8 until the end of last year. It resulted in panic attacks and missing weeks of school.
She was admitted to Tauranga Hospital's short stay unit for observation in April last year when her anxiety peaked.
When she was discharged 24 hours later, she was told about mental health support available through youth service Whetū Marewa. The service is run by youth organisation Real, combining evidence-based interventions with a flexible youth-focused approach.
"At the time I wasn't in a place where I felt comfortable talking. The experience had left me numb - no emotions, no feelings toward anything. But I got to another point in my life where I really did need to talk to people."
Months later she felt ready to seek help and went to Real's Tauranga whare.
After regular sessions, Frankie says the programme has given her the tools to create positive change in her own life.
Frankie felt her anxiety levels increase when returning to school after the March 2020 lockdown.
Adjusting back into the school environment was "extremely overwhelming".
Lockdown was "freeing" for Frankie who filled her time doing things she loved - singing, songwriting and playing video games.
"When we were in lockdown, I was so happy. I was alone in my space doing whatever I wanted. There was nothing I had to worry about," she said.
"Getting out of lockdown I realised maybe I wasn't so okay.
"I couldn't handle school any more and I couldn't handle people. I felt like I was suffocating and I felt really trapped.
"To go from a place where you were the happiest, to go to a place where you couldn't handle it any more. That was difficult."
She switched to another high school in Term 4 of 2020 hoping it would make a difference.
But the following year, her attendance rate dropped and she struggled to stay at school for longer than one period.
"I didn't know at that time it was going to get worse ... I would be in the bathroom crying.
"I have always been the kind of person that can ignore it, to just kind of live my life. But then every night I end up crying myself to sleep."
Frankie, then 15, left school in July after receiving an early leaving exemption from the Ministry of Education.
She had felt "a lot of pressure" at school and thought there wasn't enough being done to support students' mental health needs.
"I thought my only option was to be stuck in this environment I wasn't thriving in."
This year she enrolled in distance learning through Te Kura. She hopes to work as a clinical psychologist in the future.
Frankie said others didn't have to reach their lowest point to get help. All 12 to 24-year-old can refer themselves to Whetū Marewa.
Whetū Marewa, which launched in April last year, builds confidence and resilience in young people living with mild to moderate mental health and addiction-related issues.
Registered health professionals and youth workers provide support at community facilities, schools and in their homes.
"A lot of people think you have to get to the darkest place ever to get any help. I want people to know there is an option out there and you don't have to go through anyone else to be safe here."
Frankie said she instantly felt comfortable walking through the doors at Real Tauranga. She could decide how her weekly sessions would run - including going for a walk or to the beach if you did not feel like talking.
"They make it really comfortable and inviting. There are other activities than just sitting down and talking.
"It's your choice, everything is up to you. I loved that ... it makes you want to talk about things more."
Frankie now attends fortnightly sessions and said her confidence and motivation had drastically improved.
"I am happy, self-motivated and it has been really nice to be in control and take things at my own pace ... I am now in a place where I am working out consistently, doing school and working towards a career.
"I am the complete opposite from last year - just from being able to talk and feeling supported."
She still experienced anxious feelings from time to time but it was "not as bad as it used to be".
"I don't break down every day. Now it is actually situational, whereas before there would be no reason for it."
Frankie's mum Kerstyn Perry, who also struggles with mental health, said it had been devastating to see her daughter struggling.
"It's something you don't want to see your child go through ... part of you is devastated they are having to deal with something you have dealt with yourself."
At times it had been hard to support her daughter while looking after her own wellbeing.
"It just makes it harder to support them. It can be quite exhausting and overwhelming."
Her advice to other parents whose children were facing mental health struggles was to take time to listen and talk – even if it was not easy to hear.
"Listen and try to seek as much help as you can. Don't be ashamed of what they are going through and don't belittle it. Even if you think it is just a teenage thing – take the time to explore it more and seek medical advice.
"You have let to let them know they have been heard, and you want to do everything you can as a parent to help them."
Youth service growing to meet demand
Whetū Marewa is seeing an "influx" of young people looking for support, and is hiring more staff to keep up with growing demand.
Staff say Covid-19 has amplified anxieties for many teenagers trying to manage change at school and other areas.
Figures show 56 per cent of referrals that seek help through the Whetū Marewa programme in Tauranga had experienced some form of underlying anxiety.
Other common mental health challenges included low mood and self-esteem, and relationship issues.
Danica Thompson, team coach of Real in Tauranga, said the service was seeing an "influx" of referrals.
Three Whetū Marewa staff are based at the Tauranga whare. All positions are funded by the Ministry of Health under the He Ara Oranga Youth Access and Choice focus. The organisation was also employing two additional staff to help meet growing demand, she said.
Young people can self-refer to the service or be directed by schools, district health boards and other agencies.
There were 1319 individual sessions and 178 whānau sessions in Tauranga in the past year.
Real's Bay of Plenty and Lakes service and relationship manager Hester Hattingh said being able to self-refer removed barriers and made help easier to access.
"They get help quicker; you take the middle man out."
It also meant young people only needed to tell their story once rather than to multiple healthcare providers, she said.
Thompson said it also allowed staff to provide preventative care rather than being the last port of call.
She said staff took a flexible approach when working alongside young people. There was no set model or structure.
"We tailor our group and one-to-one sessions to what the taiohi say they need."
Whetū Marewa youth worker Rachel Church said this ensured young people felt heard and boosted programme engagement.
"They like they have a voice ... someone is listening to what they actually want and walking alongside them."
She said group mentoring sessions focused on learning skills to manage a range of mental health challenges around anxiety, anger and general wellbeing and these were put into practice in the real world.
She felt Covid-19 pressure on schooling had amplified teenagers' existing anxieties.
Church said it was important young people had the tools and techniques to cope in an "ever-changing world".
She said it was "incredible" to see young people grow while working with the service.
She spoke of one young person who initially only felt comfortable texting but Church managed to get them to meet face-to-face.
"They couldn't come into the office. We chatted over text and I managed to get them to come into the office and meet me face-to-face."
The pair built rapport, set goals about building confidence and practised techniques to cope with anxiety.
"Going from someone who couldn't get out of their room, to coming in every session. This young person has now got a job and is working towards their driver's licence. It's amazing, and there are many we have seen those changes in."
Where to get help
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
For counselling and support:
Lifeline: Call 0800 543 354 or text 4357 (HELP)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: Call 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Need to talk? Call or text 1737
Depression helpline: Call 0800 111 757 or text 4202
For children and young people:
Youthline: Call 0800 376 633 or text 234
What's Up: Call 0800 942 8787 (11am to 11pm) or webchat (11am to 10.30pm)
The Lowdown: Text 5626 or webchat
For help with specific issues:
Alcohol and Drug Helpline: Call 0800 787 797
Anxiety Helpline: Call 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY)
OutLine: Call 0800 688 5463 (0800 OUTLINE) (6pm-9pm)
Safe to talk (sexual harm): Call 0800 044 334 or text 4334
All services are free and available 24/7 unless otherwise specified.
For more information and support, talk to your local doctor, hauora, community mental health team, or counselling service.