Children desperate for counselling are waiting up to six weeks to get help while some schools are picking up the tab to pay for their own experts as mental health and wellbeing issues spiral.
Primary and intermediate schools say they're doing what they can with what little they have — with one Rotorua school spending $1.5 million over 15 years on counselling for students.
Experts say more children are dealing with trauma, depression and anxiety, while the housing crisis has others bouncing from school to school.
But a Budget 2021 promise of funding for a programme target ting mental health support for 5- to 12-year-olds has been welcomed by those on the frontline.
The Mana Ake – Stronger for Tomorrow initiative will receive $12 million to roll out its programme to five more district health boards, including the Bay of Plenty and Lakes boards, after a successful pilot in Canterbury.
Mana Ake workers support schools, families and whānau when children are experiencing issues that impact their wellbeing.
They include psychologists, social workers, counsellors, teachers and youth workers and since 2018 Mana Ake has supported more than 7000 children struggling with issues including anxiety, managing emotions, friendships and bullying, social isolation, parent separation, grief and loss.
Rotorua Principals' Association president Gary Veysi said students across the board had high levels of anxiety, depression and lack of engagement which, when unsupported, could lead to anger and hurting others.
Veysi said housing issues, like being asked to move out of a rental, put "huge" pressures on families, which turned into trauma for children.
It showed up in the school roll as transient children and created issues with making friends and building positive relationships.
"These children and families then struggle to feel any type of connection or stability as they then may need to move again.
"Emergency housing for families in motels sounds like a good idea, but in reality principals and schools in town have been working hard to organise buses to get children from motels to school," he said.
He said funding and resourcing were always needed, especially if that meant a diverse range of people and skills to support children's mental health.
Veysi said Mana Ake was about everyone coming to the table and the focus needed to be on making sure the money was not wasted.
Rotorua Intermediate principal Garry de Theirry said many students were impacted by living in emergency or transitional housing, as well as the pressures of social media.
The school has spent more than $1.5m of its operational expenditure on counsellors in the last 15 years.
He said schools were a reflection of society. Drug issues or family violence in the community were reflected in school families, and trickled down to the children.
Support from qualified people would help teachers who were already stretched, he said.
He said it would be "enormous" to have more qualified people help children work through their traumatic experiences.
He said addressing issues at this age was "crucial".
He believed the lack of support was a key point in issues around issues including self-harm, drugs and trouble with the law.
"It's because we've left the counselling and support for these students too late."
New Zealand Association of Counsellors president Christine Macfarlane said anything to do with food, housing, safety, warmth and relationships affected the mental wellbeing of children.
Low socioeconomic areas, with high unemployment, less access to services, and the impacts of emergency housing and poverty put higher stress on counselling, she said.
"School counsellors are overwhelmed with the number of young people coming in ... with a wide range of issues."
Macfarlane said getting space in schools was difficult in Canterbury, where the programme was piloted, and a lack of available rooms meant some workers were based out of their cars or other places that were not easily accessible.
But Mana Ake had seen good outcomes and she hoped issues in the pilot would be addressed.
The 5 to 12 age group was crucial in order to give children a chance at growing up with good mental health, and "proactive and preventative is best".
She said if issues weren't addressed early they could cause lifelong problems.
Macfarlane said the association had also been working alongside the Ministry of Education to roll out counselling in primary and intermediate schools - separate from Mana Ake.
Lakes District Health Board is working with Bay of Plenty District Health Board and the Ministry of Health to agree on the contract for the co-design process.
A Lakes spokeswoman said the board was still working through the details but was "very excited by what this opportunity offers".
Ministry of Health mental health and addiction deputy director-general, Toni Gutschlag, said work on the co-design would begin within the next few weeks.
This process will be led by local health boards and the Ministry of Education and include representatives from schools, iwi and other key community groups, Gutschlag said.
Ministry of Education sector enablement and support deputy secretary, Katrina Casey, said the ministry was working to secure the community services to provide counselling to primary and intermediate-aged children.
Budget 2020 included a package of almost $200m to support students with immediate and long-term mental health needs.
Of this, $44m is being used to increase counselling services access for students in selected primary, intermediate and area schools through contracts with community providers.
The ministry was also supporting Te Rūnanga Nui and Ngā Kura a Iwi with resources to enable them to access appropriate counselling support for tamariki in kura kaupapa.
Budget 2020 also provided $32.8m for 38 new curriculum leads to help schools and early learning services teach wellbeing and mental health to children.
Also included was a $50m Urgent Response Fund to give immediate support to early learning services and schools to manage issues around attendance after Covid-19.
Other Government initiatives include Social Workers in Schools.
• Established in Canterbury and Kaikoura in 2018 to provide mental health support to children aged 5 to 12.
• Budget 2021 allocated an additional $12m in the 2021 financial year to continue the service and begin the co-design of the services.
• Health boards to get co-design funding: Lakes, Bay of Plenty, Northland, Counties Manukau and West Coast.
• Mana Ake workers support schools, families and whānau when children are experiencing issues that impact their wellbeing.
• Kaimahi include psychologists, social workers, counsellors, teachers and youth workers.
Components of the model being co-designed:
• Whole of school/classroom mental wellbeing promotion programmes.
• Evidence-informed direct support, either one-on-one or in groups, to tamariki experiencing social, emotional or behavioural challenges including culturally appropriate and responsive interventions.
• Clear referral pathways.
• Resources for teachers.
- Source: Ministry of Health