The mental health of many New Zealanders will hang in the balance during the coming months as the social repercussions of lockdown take hold.

The warning comes from across the board and on the same day Youthline said under 25-year-olds were struggling with the negative impacts of Covid-19 on their lives.

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On Thursday the former prime minister's chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman told the Epidemic Response Committee many Kiwis have had their once certain futures ripped away from them.

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There would be a lot of newly vulnerable people, Gluckman said, giving an example of a 55-year-old travel agent now out of work and without a future, who would join New Zealand's already disadvantaged.

The International Labour Organisation says the relationship between economic health and mental health is inextricably linked.

Internationally previous economic downturns and crises have been linked to growing mental health problems and spikes in suicide rates.

In the Economic Union every one per cent increase in unemployment was associated with a 0.8 per cent rise in suicides for people under 65 years.

The former Prime Minister's chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman says there will be a social fallout from lockdown that will require significant support. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The former Prime Minister's chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman says there will be a social fallout from lockdown that will require significant support. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Welfare agencies and foodbanks, often the frontline response to poverty, have reported record numbers of requests as the Covid-19 pain bites.

Gluckman said the fallout from lockdown would be an increase in fear, anxiety and frustrations.

The primary need now was to support the social services providing help and solutions to our communities and the focus had to be on how to mitigate the effects of the crisis, he said.

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His sentiment was echoed by mental health advocate Jane Stevens, whose 21-year-old son Nicky took his own life in 2015.

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"I've had several people make contact with me asking where they can get help and families who are worried about their young people, and young people who are in crisis."

She agreed with Gluckman that a more inclusive conversation was needed to address what she called a major emergency.

"We're faced with a crisis on top of a crisis because we already had a crisis. And our hospital wards might be empty but I know for a fact that our mental health wards aren't."

Stevens said the national mental health inquiry, completed in November 2018, together with lessons from the Christchurch earthquake, should have put New Zealand into a better position to help those left vulnerable following lockdown.

Suicide-bereaved mum Jane Stevens is dealing with people and families in mental health crisis as a result of, or compounded by, the lockdown. Photo / Alan Gibson
Suicide-bereaved mum Jane Stevens is dealing with people and families in mental health crisis as a result of, or compounded by, the lockdown. Photo / Alan Gibson

But she said even she struggled to get access to the services people needed.

"So what are we going to do about it? We talk about reacting quickly with the economy but lets start doing the same thing for the mental health of our people."

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said our biggest threat to mental wellbeing going forward was economic impact.

"Things like losing jobs, businesses failing and not being able to feed your family are going to have a huge impact and it's completely natural that people are going to become stressed in those situations."

But he said a surge in depression wasn't inevitable and there were things we could do to mitigate the mental and emotional impacts of the epidemic.

"It's about skills not pills, and our behaviour and lifestyle choices has a very big impact on our mental health."

Robinson, who lives with bipolar, spoke openly about his own struggles during lockdown.

"In the early stages, I became anxious, depressed and was quite unwell ... I decided I needed to double-down on my behaviour - so staying in touch with friends, spending some time in my garden and appreciating the fact there was more birds around - the little things that gave me happiness."

Youthline chief executive Shae Ronald said change was unsettling and debstablising and the lockdown had resulted in a high level of uncertainty and a lack of usual routine.

All of these were contributing to spikes in deteriorating mental health, and the situation was more desperate for young people.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said he found little things to make him happy to distract him from lockdown anxieties. Photo / Supplied
Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said he found little things to make him happy to distract him from lockdown anxieties. Photo / Supplied

A Youthline survey during lockdown of 975 people aged over 12, found 72 per cent agreed the pandemic and lockdown had had an impact on their mental health.

Of those 41 per cent aged over 25 were struggling while 47 per cent under 25 named feeling anxious, depressed and coping poorly as the main drivers of the negative impact.

Ronald stressed those feelings were normal and Youthline was focused on working out coping strategies for vulnerable youth and their families.

"For parents and families, remembering how important it is to listen in a non-judgmental way to young people, and really listen.

"It's really important people talk about what's going on and then get support for their mental health and wellbeing."

From vulnerable teen mum to youth worker

Holly Simpson first encountered Youthline when at 17 she became a teenage mum and needed mental health support.

With the guidance of the person on the other end of the phone she went from someone who felt she had no future to a qualified youth worker, team leader and centre manager at Youthline, at just 24.

"I was really lucky to get connected with someone at Youthline who was able to give me support and mentor me and help me figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

"I was really lost and had no self-esteem and thought I was destined to be a stay-at-home mum forever and that would be my life."

Instead the Albany woman spent time answering calls at Youthline before going on to university.

Holly Simpson was once a Youthline client. Now she is a youth worker there and says there has been a surge in calls to the helpline because of Covid-19. Photo / Supplied
Holly Simpson was once a Youthline client. Now she is a youth worker there and says there has been a surge in calls to the helpline because of Covid-19. Photo / Supplied

During lockdown Simpson said suicide was the most common theme of the increase in contact to the helpline.

The reasons for the anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts included loss of physical contact, loss of "happy place" which for many was school, living in unsafe home situations and unsettled by the massive change to their lives.

Younger populations were also more sensitive to the negative health effects of rising unemployment.

For every 1 per cent increase in unemployment, there was a 2 per cent rise in suicides, according to data from the European Union.

"I think we are going to feel these effects for a long time and we really want to support young people now and coming up."

Youthline itself was also affected by the downturn in the economy because of Covid-19 and was now faced with a $300,000 shortfall in funding for the year.

To that end a Givealittle page was launched on Thursday to help raise money after social distancing restrictions had forced the postponement of Youthline's major fundraiser in May.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website