Loneliness, anxiety and the invisible enemy: How mental health professionals are helping some of our most vulnerable through COVID-19

Fighting on the frontline: As we look to transition into alert level 2, Newshub is talking to the essential workers who have provided vital support to Kiwis during lockdown. 

Warning: This article discusses suicide.

Mental health professionals in Christchurch are no strangers to dealing with crises.

In 2010 and 2011 it was the Canterbury earthquakes and last year it was the mosque shootings.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, as Noeline Allan explains, is its own unique beast.

"With the earthquake it was Christchurch, wider Canterbury [and] the rest of the country was there to support us," says Allan, the practice manager of the Canterbury Men's Centre and a trained counsellor.

The Canterbury Men's Centre in Christchurch.
The Canterbury Men's Centre in Christchurch. Photo credit: Google

"We were very good at supporting each and we were able to have contact with each other - what is so different is the isolation."

It's no secret anxiety and distress has increased significantly since the pandemic unfolded and New Zealand went into lockdown. A survey late last month by mental health organisation Out of the Fog showed 80 percent of all Kiwis were feeling stressed while locked down in their bubbles.

That, Allan says, is starting to become evident.

"In the first week [of lockdown] it was quieter," Allan told Newshub. "All of our contacts made contact with their regular clients and offered them telephone and Zoom counselling sessions and about 50 percent of our clients chose to pick up that opportunity.

"However, as time elapsed, more and more of those clients chose to re-engage because they found they needed that support and certainly in the last 10 days - I've had more and more men calling in wanting to engage for the first time and establish counselling, and a number of them have been very high-need."

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned almost all aspects of day-to-day life on its head, with New Zealand subject to strict lockdown measures - in an effort to eliminate the virus - earlier than many other countries.

Allan and the counsellors at the Canterbury Men's Centre are just a few of many throughout the country trying to deal with the aftermath of the crisis. Time will tell if New Zealand's mental health services will be able to cope.

As of April 21, counsellors on helpline 1737 Need to Talk had reported a 40 percent increase in call volume.

"In this period of lockdown and this invisible enemy that we've all been battling, the anxiety has become much more amplified," says Allan.

"They've been living with a lot of fear and if they're living in that sort of isolated state that the lockdown has generated, they've felt very alone and uncared for, unimportant, undervalued, and disconnected.

"It has triggered a lot of traumas [and] it's also given them time to sit with themselves and do a lot of thinking, so a lot of harsh stuff that they've pushed down has bubbled back up."

At Christchurch's Home and Family, a social service that specialises in working with children, counsellors are also seeing the impact.

"All those pressures with financial, everybody not having the same contact as what they've had, and the unknown," says one counsellor, who Newshub isn't naming for privacy reasons.

"Unknown is just a really hard place for people to be - we have learned that over the years with the earthquakes and unfortunately, I expect that to continue on."

In households where tensions are already high, the pandemic is expected to escalate matters.

"It's going to create pressures and greater potential for harm or abuse.

"More generally, I think families that are more isolated - are going to do it tougher."

As the pandemic continues to take its toll on the economy, mental health campaigners have warned the crisis could have even more dire consequences.

"Our suicide rate has been increasing every year for a very long time and it is heartbreaking, and I am really concerned that we are going to see that rate climb into numbers that we've never seen before," Out of the Fog director Kristina Patterson told Newshub last month.

An increase would be dire for New Zealand's already alarming suicide rate. In the year to June 30, 2019, 685 people took their own lives - 17 more than the previous year.

"For the last 10 days there have been more very high-need clients ringing in and I receive those calls, I'm the frontline and I've had to do a lot more de-escalation," says Allen, who is currently working from home.

"Yesterday [Wednesday] was utterly manic. I literally bounced from client to client all day down the phone line dealing with some very high-need situations."

Whether things get better before they get worse remains to be seen but this week, as Allen explains, could be crucial.

"I think a lot of it will depend on the announcement by [the] Government on Monday," she says. "I think there are a lot of people holding it together right now.

"If we go to level 2 - then I think those people who are holding it together and know they can come into the centre and sit with us in a face-to-face way will manage that. If that doesn't happen, I'm thinking we'll have to move back into the office so we've got more people answering the phones so we can deal with what's going to come."

The Government has scrambled to prepare by investing a further $40 million into 100 new free mental health and addiction services. But the move was blasted by the New Zealand Association of Counsellors.

"Many people across New Zealand will be feeling distressed or anxious about the future because of COVID-19. We want people to know that it's normal to feel this way in times of uncertainty and that there is free support available for people to talk with a professional," said Health Minister David Clark.

Pandemic or not, the message from professionals remains the same.

Health Minister David Clark donning a badge with the number 1737 - a free 24/7 counselling service that Kiwis can call or text.
Health Minister David Clark donning a badge with the number 1737 - a free 24/7 counselling service that Kiwis can call or text. Photo credit: Newshub.

"Don't be frightened to reach out," says Allen. "Don't be frightened to ask for help.

"There are good people out there who are willing to support you and help you, and don't feel ashamed if you need to ask for help."

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 talk@youthline.co.nz 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