The mental health of Dunedin school pupils – both primary and secondary – is causing concern for principals and mental health professionals. The Star reporter Greta Yeoman investigates the causes behind the increasing amount of young people needing support, and what the overwhelming demand is meaning for service providers, staff and pupils.

Increasing numbers of children with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are causing concern for schools around the city.

Otago Primary Principals’ Association president Debbie Smith said children’s mental health was “definitely” an issue for schools in the city, and there was a noticeable increase in children needing support.

The overwhelming majority of people The Star talked to spoke of growing numbers of young people seeking help for mental health issues.

However, the scale of the issue is difficult to quantify because of a lack of hard data and is largely anecdotal.

Mrs Smith said “challenging behaviours” of children were often connected to other issues that were not always obvious to staff.

“There’s always a reason a child behaves the way they do.”

Affecting all ages . . . Chatbus’ Averil Pierce says her service cannot keep up with the number of children needing counselling support, a trend reflected by many in schools and mental health services across Dunedin. PHOTO: ODT FILES

She said these issues affected children’s ability to work well in the classroom, something Chatbus founder Averil Pierce agreed with.

The in-school counselling service counsellors were seeing children talking about family issues and worries about friends and expressing anxiety and anger, Mrs Pierce said.

Children were often more anxious because they were being easily exposed to news events and other worrying content and often did not have older people around to help them process these things, she said.

While Chatbus was in 14 schools in the city and supported more than 550 Dunedin children last year, the number of children needing support from the service far exceeded the number of spaces available.

Mrs Smith, who is also the principal of Musselburgh School, said children’s anxiety levels were up and parents were often more stressed and not coping as well as they had in the past because of the cost of living and sometimes their own mental health issues.

Youth services in “high demand”

Youth mental health services are experiencing “really high demand”, Dunedin’s mental health fraternity says.

New Zealand Association of Counsellors Otago chairwoman Debbie Fraser said the city’s mental health organisations were receiving “far more” referrals than they could deal with.

“[It is] quite concerning.”

A Youthline promotion.

Most children seeing Dunedin counsellors had anxiety or depression and “a lot” were self-harming.

Responses to mental illness, such as self-harm, were often difficult for people to understand.

Self-harm was often a way for people to try to control their pain or physically display it, Ms Fraser said.

Contributing factors to the growth in mental health issues for Dunedin young people included expectations of independence when they still needed support, family complications, easy access to the internet and being unable to find suitable people with whom to discuss concerning information.

Youthline Otago manager Brian Lowe said rising numbers of young people in “mental distress” were accessing the organisation’s helpline.

He suggested while young people were seen to be more independent, they still needed plenty of support.

Southern District Health Board allied health director Karen Ramsey said the Child Adolescent Family Mental Health Service, which supports children up to age 14, had about 160 clients, and the Youth Specialty Service for 14- to 19-year-olds had about 300.

Most clients, once assessed and admitted to the services, were part of the service for anywhere between six months and two years.

She acknowledged while the SDHB was providing “pretty good” services to clients with “high-end” mental health issues, people in the “mild to moderate bracket” needed more support, which the health board hoped to work on.

Otago Youth Wellness Support Trust practice leader Jo McKenzie said anecdotal evidence from staff suggested the severity of clients’ anxiety and depression was increasing and was contributing to truancy and poverty.

She encouraged pupils to talk to a teacher or a respected adult if they were worried about themselves or their friends’ mental health.

Young people should “persist” in seeking help from mental health services, even if they had had a bad experience the first time they had sought help.

For the full feature, find the digital copy of The Star under the “Digital Edition” tab.

Where to get help:
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline (8am-midnight): 0800 111 757
Healthline: 0800 611 116
Samaritans: 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Youthline: 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email
What’s Up (for 5-18-year-olds; 1pm-11pm): 0800 942 8787
Kidsline (for children up to 14; 4pm-6pm weekdays): 0800 54 37 54 (0800 KIDSLINE)