At least one school a day is asking for help following traumatic incidents, including sudden deaths of students and teachers.

Figures obtained under the Official Information Act (OIA) show the Ministry of Education received 205 requests for support from its traumatic incident team in 2015 - more than one request a day per school year.

That was six more requests than the 199 that were filed in 2014, and a sharp rise from the 139 in 2013.

The figures represent the number of requests for support - not the number of schools which asked for help.


And these only reflect a proportion of incidents which prompt schools to provide counselling and other emotional support for pupils - as many schools opt to deal with traumatic incidents in-house.

A traumatic incident can be anything from the sudden death of a student or teacher, a death from illness, the death of a parent, injury or a violent incident on the school grounds, or a school fire.

It is usually an event that affects a significant number of people within the school community - whether that's a primary or secondary school, or early childhood centre.

It was difficult to ascertain whether the increase in requests for help over the past three years was due to an increase in incidents, or a more accepted view of asking for help in such instances and greater awareness of the team, those spoken to by the Herald said.

However, almost everyone praised the good work of the traumatic incident teams.

Louise Green, national president of the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI), described them as "amazing".

"It's a really good service - and needed - and really respected and highly valued from the profession," she said.

The increase in requests from 2013 to 2014 may be down to a more concerted effort from schools to review their policies around traumatic incidents following events such as the Canterbury earthquakes, she said.

"I suppose you become more aware of incidents happening and with the health and safety focus and all that we did actually have quite a focus on our traumatic incident policies and things, so that might have helped raise awareness as well.

"Combined with the fact that it is a good service and that it's just amazing when you're in a situation."

On-call teams 'incredible'

One principal who has used the service twice in the past 11 years, said the teams were an "incredible" help.

Jan Tinetti, principal at Merivale School in Tauranga, described how the team was quick to respond - even on a weekend - when something happened, and helped guide the school staff through it.

She credits the team for ensuring her primary school pupils were able to cope so well with the shock and grief of a 2013 incident in which a father was found dead in his driveway next door to the school. The man had daughters at the school, which was closed by police as evidence was found on the grounds.

"They were absolutely amazing," she said. "They were very quick on their response and whenever I needed them, it didn't matter what time of day or night, [they were there].

The team brought in counsellors, Maori liaison and iwi representatives to help the children through their grief, as well as books and other resources to help them. They encouraged staff to ask the children to make cards for the family, and suggested a follow up grief programme for 12 months after the incident.

"The children came through it amazingly well," she said. "It was an incredible way that they actually came through that whole horrific experience."

At every step the staff "felt really confident" that what was happening was in the best interest for the children, she said.

Incident teams can 'take over'

Sandy Pasley, president of the Secondary Principals' Association of New Zealand (SPANZ), said all the feedback she'd heard suggested schools were "very satisfied with the way that they have been given support".

Allan Vester, of the New Zealand Secondary Principals' Council, said the feedback he'd heard was "generally very positive, as schools appreciate the help".

He was unsure why the number of requests has risen, as he had not heard of any major increase in traumatic incidents, but said it may be that schools are more comfortable using their help.

He also suggested the rise could have come from an increase in requests from the primary sector, as primary schools were less likely to have in-house counselling services.

However, he suggested some schools may be hesitant to request help from the ministry out of a perception the team would "take over".

Mike Williams, principal at Pakuranga College, echoed that sentiment saying the team tend to "front-foot" the situation.

Last year Pakuranga College lost Year 13 student Josh Martin, also known as Josh O'Hanlon, after his motorbike and a Rav4 collided. Williams said the school chose to deal with such incidents in-house.

"I've never accessed the ministry because . . . I find the kids and the community work better with people they know," he said.

"We work on a process of freeing up our own people as much as possible so they can do the work, so that's a familiar face [for the pupils]."

Culture is key

Youthline boss Stephen Bell said he saw it as a good thing that requests for the team were increasing, as it indicated people were "slowly developing a little bit more EQ".

"On a sort of personal, cultural level in New Zealand, we're not great at putting our hands up [to ask for help], and our institutions also have a similar reticence at times," he said.

Bell added: "Schools are much better at developing a healthy culture [now].

"And equally there's been a lot of work done by the ministry and the DHBs to create a process, and when there's a process people are more likely to engage than when there's nothing."

Creating an environment where students know it's okay to seek help when they're feeling down or struggling with an issue, was the best thing a school could do, he said.

"I think it is very much to do with a cultural thing. You can have all the services in the world, but if you don't have a culture where it's permission-giving and affirming, then at an emotional level you're creating an isolation and it's out of isolation that stuff happens."

Kim Shannon, head of sector enablement and support at the Ministry of Education, said it was "difficult to identify specific reasons for the increase".

"Reasons could range from a greater awareness of the service to a localised increase in traumatic incidents such as suicide attempts, but there is no specific pattern."

Each special education district has a traumatic incident co-ordinator with a small team of trained staff who can support schools after a traumatic incident has occurred, she said.

"The provision of support from the traumatic incident team is part of the range of specialist services provided by us - there is no separate budget allocation for this service."

Number of incident requests for the traumatic support team:
2013: 139
2014: 199
2015: 205