Life after loss: Woman left with 'no faith' in NZ's mental health system after seeking help for dad who later died by suicide

Warning: This article contains details of suicide and mental health that may be triggering to some readers. 

A Christchurch woman is using her experience with devastating loss to raise awareness for the lack of resources in New Zealand's mental health system. 

Tori Wheelans is one of the Cool Change Sisters, a group of three young women raising awareness for mental health in Aotearoa through their Instagram page.   

Wheelans told Newshub she was faced with her father's suicide in 2018, not long after she turned 23. 

"He suffered deep and dark mental health issues and he did for an extended period of his life," she reflected. "It wasn't until the last five or so years of his life that they became increasingly worse and he struggled to talk about it or get the help he needed to get better." 

She and her fellow Cool Change sisters, Grace Curtis and Georgia Harris, were bonded through loss, after each losing their father to suicide.

"We have all experienced a loss that no one should ever have to experience, especially at such a young age," she said. 

"We started 'Cool Change' with very little expectations but had the hopes of reaching others feeling similarly to us. 

"Our aim has been to develop comprehensive suicide prevention loss and grief strategies, break the stigma and change the perceptions around mental health and suicide, raise awareness and allow for a platform where people feel comfortable to talk out and ask for help."

Their social media presence is a place where people can share stories, she says, and find comfort in knowing "they're not alone and can grieve together". 

That means that Wheelans and her peers have not shied away from raw honesty in their posts, including a recent set of stories where she revealed her own experience in the mental health system "made her feel worse than when she went in". 

"When my father was reaching crisis point, I reached out to a service in Christchurch and I was told that I needed to get my Dad to call his GP, they couldn't do anything to help and that he needed to sort it out - not me," she revealed to Newshub, adding she felt "completely let down by the system". 

"I had no faith and no trust in them after that. My Dad was severely sick and needed help as soon as possible."

After her father took his life, Wheelans says "no check-ins were made, no support services offered and no follow up from any services". 

Tori Wheelans and her father
Tori Wheelans with her father. Photo credit: Supplied.

"When I decided it was time to reach out for help I waited three months for an appointment with a counsellor."

Wheelans said she split the $100 per hour counselling session with her mum. 

"When I stepped foot in the room one of the first questions I was asked was, 'are you suicidal?'" she said, adding she was told by her counsellor she should feel "guilty" for being angry at her father for ending his life. 

"[I was told] I should forgive my Dad because he was sick and I shouldn't be mad for not having him around anymore," she said. "I again felt let down and disappointed. There have been times when I know I have needed help but I have had to turn to friends and family because I knew the system couldn't help me.

Wheelans has been honest about her own experiences on social media.
Wheelans has been honest about her own experiences on social media. Photo credit: Cool Change Instagram.

She adds the major issue is that the NZ mental health industry is drastically under-resourced and underfunded. 

"The average wait time to get funded counselling is at best eight to 12 weeks. You can be waiting two to three months to get an appointment that is appointed to you and for you," she said. 

"Say you are really struggling with regulating your emotions, cognitive function, day to day tasks and you need to speak to someone who is a little more experienced - a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist who are able to diagnose you with bipolar, ADHD, depression etc - illnesses that you need proper coaching in or medication that will enable you to get better, this can take up to 12 weeks."

In the public system, she added, you're looking at about six months "and by the time you get an appointment where you can be diagnosed or prescribed with medication, you could be waiting up to a year". 

"Privately can be up to two-three months also which can cost you up to $400-500 per session." 

An Auckland clinical psychologist confirmed to Newshub those numbers were accurate, and if anything, "a little generous". 

The psychologist also raised issues with the comments given by the counsellor, and acknowledged there are problems with the profession as there are "no formal requirements needed for you to call yourself a counsellor". 

"Most employers and professional bodies require their employees to hold at least a Level 6 diploma in counselling or a degree in psychotherapy," she added. But since 2019, only a bachelor's degree is officially needed to practice. 

Meanwhile, a Ministry of Health spokesperson told Newshub they encourage anyone struggling with mental distress to make contact with their GP. 

"The rollout of the integrated primary mental health and addiction service means people experiencing anxiety or other mental health needs can access mental wellbeing support in participating GP sites across the country," they said. "Around 10,000 people a month are getting mental wellbeing support through this service."

Anyone who feels they are struggling can also free call or text 1737 to be connected with a counsellor 24/7.

The spokesperson also pointed to MOH data showing over 12 months, 57 percent of 20-64 years olds had their first face-to-face contact with specialist mental health and addiction services within 48 hours, 81 percent were seen within three weeks and 93 percent were seen within eight weeks.

"Specialist Mental Health and Addiction services are for those with the highest levels of need, and around 180,000 people a year use these services," they added.

Tori Wheelans says her advice to anyone feeling similarly lost or let down by the system is to stay strong, reach out to friends and family, and "most importantly, don't give up". 

"You are here for a reason and there are so many people that are here to help you," she added. 

"Seek advice from people you trust and when you are ready, try something new. Find a new counsellor and trial them out. 

"The best advice I can give is to get yourself a really great friend and confide in them whenever you need to. They know you better than a counsellor and often are easier to talk to without judgment." 

Wheelans and her peers now speak at events raising awareness for mental health issues.
Wheelans and her peers now speak at events raising awareness for mental health issues. Photo credit: Supplied.

How to help someone who is grieving 

Wheelans' experience with loss has given her insight into ways to comfort or help someone going through loss. On Cool Change she recently posted a video offering some key pieces of advice, and has put together some further thoughts for Newshub readers struggling to find the right words or actions to help someone grieving. 

"When people ask for advice on what they can do to help someone who is grieving I could list 1000 things to help and do," she said. 

"But my top suggestions would be…" 

Don't be afraid that you may say the wrong thing! 

There is no rule book on how to talk to someone who has just lost a loved one. Nothing you say can make them feel worse. Acknowledge their feelings and allow them to talk through their emotions with you. Make sure you let them know that you are there to listen without judgment and help if they need you to. Sometimes listening is all they need. Stay connected and available.

Offer practical assistance 

Offer to grab groceries for them, do washing, drop around cooked meals, accompany them on a walk, help out with day-to-day tasks. When people are grieving just getting out of bed can be a really hard task to complete. 

Accept and be prepared for mood swings

Grief is best described as an emotional rollercoaster, one day you are up, and one day you are down. Someone who has just lost a loved one may feel fine one moment and overcome with emotion the next. This is a normal part of the grieving process.

Avoid giving advice

It is best to avoid making suggestions about what the bereaved person should or shouldn't do. Such advice is usually well-meant, but it may make the bereaved person feel worse. Instead, let the person know that you recognize how great his or her loss is. 

Drop off food

Bring around some home-cooked meals to pop in the freezer. The last thing anyone grieving wants to be doing is cooking a meal and it is important that they eat. Drop off some vases for all the flowers that they get from people sending their condolences. 

Where to find help and support: 

  • Shine (domestic violence) - 0508 744 633
  • Women's Refuge - 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)
  • Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737
  • What's Up - 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)
  • Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
  • Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email or online chat
  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666
  • Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Shakti Community Council - 0800 742 584