A teenager who has tried to kill himself more than once has had his only support cut by the Auckland District Health Board.
The DHB says the group therapy had been put on hold because of ongoing strikes - which psychologists say are necessary due to severe under-staffing.
Around 600 psychologists from across the country are refusing to work overtime for five weeks (ending September 3). Fears loom hundreds of vulnerable New Zealand children are in danger due to not being able to access their usual support.
Jake (not his real name) is just one. Yesterday he celebrated his 16th birthday - and tonight he was meant to have his weekly group therapy session, something his mum refers to as his "lifeline".
"This therapy has been life-changing for my son. I'm deeply concerned his mental health is going to deteriorate without it," his mother told the Herald, holding back tears.
Just last week the family received a letter, which the Herald has seen, from the DHB saying Jake's DBT (dialectical behaviour therapy) group would not be available during the five-week strike period. The after hours DBT phone-line with his case worker would also not be accessible from August 19 to September 3.
"To be told the only therapy available for my depressed teenager has been cancelled is devastating.
"It wasn't until he tried to kill himself in June last year that they finally started to take his mental health seriously and now this, I can't believe it," his mother said.
DBT is a commonly used therapy in New Zealand, particularly for children, and is targeted at addressing mood disorders, suicidal ideation and self-harming.
Jake's mother said it took nine months for her son to be accepted on to the DBT group, which he started in February.
"It then took another month for him to actually engage in the course and only in the last month has he found the courage to call his case worker when he is feeling low."
Auckland DHB director of provider services Joanne Gibbs said while there were wait times for the DBT programme, other forms of talking therapy were available in the meantime.
"Due to the number of DBT referrals we have received we will be starting an additional DBT programme group within the next few months," Gibbs said.
The DHB has offered an after-hours urgent response phone service as an alternative during the strikes but the Herald understands this would be available only for emergencies, whereas the DBT phone was with someone Jake trusted and could call whenever he was feeling down.
Jake's mother stressed her anguish was not at the psychologists for striking but at the DHB and Ministry of Health for not paying them overtime.
"I'm horrified that they've been taking turns treating my son for no money," she said.
Consultant clinical psychologist and union member Annmarie Kingi, who is striking, said they were meant to be paid in lieu for overtime but due to being severely short-staffed that didn't happen.
"We are at complete burnout. We are expected to run these sessions after-hours and don't get paid for it on top everything else," Kingi said.
She said therapy such as DBT was crucial for vulnerable children and sadly it was common for people to be waiting between eight to 12 months for services like this due to a lack of staff available.
Ministry of Health acting deputy-director of mental health and addiction Richard Taylor said the ministry acknowledged the strikes would affect patients and families and it regretted any inconvenience and distress caused.
"The Government initiative 'Expanding Access and Choice of Primary Mental Health and Addiction Support' makes funding available for workforce development, including $13.888 million in 2019/20," Taylor said.
"This aims to upskill and expand the capacity of existing mental health and addiction workforces, including psychologists."
Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said it was "totally unacceptable" someone who was suffering suicidal thoughts had to wait nine months to be seen and was still struggling to get access to care.
"This situation is very concerning, especially considering this young man had to wait that long to get help. It demonstrates how far behind we are and how much we have to catch up."
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:
• 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202