Vulnerable children left waiting six months for help

Home and Family senior counsellor Cheryl O'Neill working with a child in the play therapy play room.

Vulnerable Canterbury children are having to wait almost six months, on average, for an appointment with a mental health specialist.

Schools and social services say many children are falling through the cracks because of the problems with the service.

The numbers come from the Canterbury District Health Board child and youth mental health service, which has been under pressure since the earthquakes.

They show children aged 12 or younger waited an average of 28 days for a first appointment with a clinician after being referred to the service, where the urgency of their case was decided. They then had to wait another 150 days for an appointment with a specialist – almost six months in total.

That compared to a wait of eight days for the average adult – four days for a first appointment, and another four days for a specialist appointment.

It comes after provisional suicide statistics for Canterbury, released this week, show 126 Cantabrians took their own lives in the past 18 months.

Home and Family Society executive director Val Carter said she believed helping young children early and teaching them good mental health strategies could help to reduce the suicide rate in the future.

“If we don’t act now, in 10 years the problem is going to be huge,” she said.

She said the Home and Family Society counsellors were increasingly getting referrals directly from GPs, as they knew children were likely to have to wait a long time for help in the public system.

CDHB Child & Family Service clinical director Harith Swadi said any children who were deemed to be “in urgent need” had their case prioritised. They were sometimes seen within days.

“We believe that those in the greatest need are being seen first, and that this is the fairest way we can operate to maintain access to specialist services. Of course we would always like to provide more services to more people, but we are making the best use of the resources we have.”

Canterbury Primary Principal’s Association president Margaret Trotter said the wait times for appointments put some families off asking for help at all.

“We’re seeing extreme cases being picked up, but the other children, who would have been picked up in the past, face either a long delay or their cases are judged not serious enough to be seen,” she said.

Schools told her the numbers of young children who were stressed or had behavioural issues were still growing, she said.

The CDHB currently has 75 staff working in Child & Family mental health services. Seven full-time staff work on its school mental health team, covering 136 schools across Canterbury.

Arahura Centre counsellor Kim Lingley said she was also seeing growing demand for child counselling services.

She said it had been predicted by international studies looking at what happened after disasters.

“Even six or seven years after the earthquakes there are still a lot of issues around unsettledness,” she said.

Because of the demand on services, she said the cases they were seeing were more extreme.


Average wait times for CDHB mental health services:

Children (0-12): 28 days for a first appointment, then 150 days for a specialist appointment

Teens (13-18): 18 days for a first appointment, then 68 days for a specialist appointment

Adults: Four days for a first appointment, then four days for a specialist appointment

Canterbury’s suicide numbers:

January to June this year: 51 people took their lives; 2016: 75 2015: 72

•The Suicide Crisis Helpline can be reached on 0508 828 865, the Depression Helpline can on 0800 111 757 and Lifeline on 0800 543 354. All three are available 24/7.