Dad of suicidal 12yo girl condemns NZ mental health system as 'huge letdown', says Mike King's Gumboot Friday 'the only way we got help'

Warning: This article discusses self-harm and suicide.

The father of a 12-year-old girl who attempted suicide has described New Zealand's mental health system as "a huge letdown" after she went months without support despite repeated pleas for help.

Auckland man Anthony says the Ministry of Health failed his daughter Mia*, who twice had a referral to a high-risk mental health service provider declined and went months without treatment despite an attempt to take her own life.

He credits Gumboot Friday - the free counselling service provided by Mike King's charity I Am Hope - with being the only organisation that offered the prompt help his daughter desperately needed.

It comes after months of criticism of the Ministry of Health and the Prime Minister by King, who returned his NZ Order of Merit medal for services to mental health awareness and suicide prevention in June because "things haven't changed" and "so many are still suffering".

Anthony backs King's fight and says his family's experience has driven home how under-resourced the Ministry of Health is to deal with New Zealand's mental health crisis.

The Ministry of Health and Waitematā DHB both acknowledge there were issues with the support given to the young girl, and the DHB has since reached out to apologise to the family.

'We could have lost her'

Mia's parents first noticed she was facing mental health challenges in February, when she found out her best friend was moving schools just before the school year began. Anthony says the move hit Mia hard, and they had to attend meetings with the school so she could change classes.

But they had no idea of the extent of Mia's struggle until Easter weekend when, shortly after returning from a trip to see extended family, she was caught self-harming.

Mia was reluctant to open up about why she had been hurting herself, but her parents found out through one of her friends that she'd previously expressed a desire to end her life.

"That's obviously when we were like, 'oh shit, what's going on here?'"

They took Mia to their local GP in early April, explaining that she had been self-harming and thinking about suicide. He in turn referred them to Marinoto, a Waitematā DHB service that provides assessment and therapy for young people who have significant mental health concerns.

Anthony says they were never contacted about the referral by Waitematā DHB, and only found out via text from their GP that the referral had been declined and they needed to take Mia to an external provider specialising in mild to moderate mental health concerns.

Anthony says he tried to call this provider every day for about three weeks, leaving messages, but no one ever answered or returned his call.

Around this time, Mia one night told her parents she was tired, closed herself in her room, and attempted suicide. Her parents heard her in distress and came to her aid, rushing her to the emergency department and saving her life.

A Marinoto representative came by the following day and asked Mia why she'd attempted suicide.

"My daughter just said she wanted to stop feeling," Anthony recalls. "When we said 'what do you mean by stop?' she just said 'I don't know'. That was basically all we managed to get out of her."

The parents attended a meeting with Marinoto later that week to discuss what Mia had been dealing with, but were left shocked when they learned she had once more been declined for the service.

"They came back to us and said they did not believe it was serious enough, again, for their help," he said.

"We could have almost lost her. For them to be saying it's not serious enough after she clearly tried to take her own life, we were at a wit's end - like, now what do we do?

"We've got our daughter literally trying to take her own life and we've got people saying it's not serious enough because it was impulsive, it wasn't planned."

Anthony says Marinoto referred Mia back to the external provider for 'mild to moderate' mental health concerns, and they were told as it was a direct referral "someone would definitely be in contact".

But the same thing happened - and after days without hearing anything back from the provider, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

Having heard about Mike King's charity I AM HOPE, they went on the website and found about its service Gumboot Friday, which provides free counselling for young people. From there they were able to select a counsellor they thought would be a good fit for Mia - a young art therapist nearby.

They heard back within one working day about fitting her in for an appointment.

"[The therapist] was even saying 'look, if you can't make it out to me, then I can do it over Zoom'. She was just really accommodating," Anthony says.

Mia has had three counselling sessions so far and is making good strides in her mental health journey. Anthony says she and the therapist already appear to have a good connection, and several more sessions have been booked in.

"She's loving the counsellor. The counsellor's giving her skills that she needs on how to deal with some of these situations that come up," Anthony said.

Two weeks ago - more than three months after Mia was first referred to Waitematā DHB - a counsellor from the external provider got in contact out of the blue to organise a counselling session. However Mia did not enjoy it and asked not to go back.

'It's clear they didn't receive the support they needed' - MoH

Anthony says his family's experience with the mental health system has been "seriously disappointing".

"You'd think the system is there to be there when you need it, and it's just drastically let us down," he said.

"We didn't know what to do, we were relying on the experts… our GP did the right thing by putting us in contact [with mental health service providers] - but at that next step, there was just nothing there.

"I shouldn't have to be calling every day, leaving messages going 'can someone call me back?' and not getting a single phone call. We were left in the dark and got to the point where we were like 'we have to do something about this'."

A Waitematā DHB spokesperson told Newshub they were "very sorry" to hear Mia and her family don't feel they had good support from its services.

"We have reached out to the family to fully understand their concerns and to apologise for their experience," they said.

"We have checked the patient's records and while the referral to an external service provider that we fund was clinically appropriate, there are some unresolved issues around follow-up and communication with the family.

"Once we have further information from the external provider, we will be in direct contact with the patient's family. We understand that this patient does have appointments booked with the external provider and that appropriate supports are now in place."

A Ministry of Health spokesperson added that "it's clear this person and her family did not receive the support they needed at the time".

The Ministry of Health said it's clear Mia and her family "didn't get the support they needed".
The Ministry of Health said it's clear Mia and her family "didn't get the support they needed". Photo credit: Getty Images

"Support in responding to instances of mental distress need to be responded to in a timely manner," they told Newshub.

"The ministry absolutely wants to see children and youth receive the mental wellbeing support they need, when they need it and in the way that suits them. We know that specialist mental health and addiction services are under pressure, especially those focused on supporting children and youth."

The spokesperson said while the ministry is now placing greater emphasis on prevention and early intervention within the mental health system, it "does not mean acute situations are not prioritised".

"DHBs do prioritise access for those with the most urgent needs. We encourage people to raise concerns about health services with their local DHB so they can be addressed through their complaints process."

While disappointed by New Zealand's mental health system, Anthony is full of praise for Mike King and Gumboot Friday and the prompt support they provided his daughter.

"The only way we got help was through his foundation," he said. "We're behind him and all us parents appreciate him."

In a statement to Newshub, King said he was "happy we could support this whānau with the help they deserve" - but said their experience was just the latest in a long line of run-ins with the ministry.

"This isn't the exception anymore, this is the rule," he said. "In the last three months we have supported more than 1300 families to get the help they desperately need."

King has been highly critical of the ministry's approach to mental health support in recent months, and Anthony "100 percent" backs King's fight to change the system.

"Mike King's standing up there saying 'I've got the people here that you need', and then for [the ministry] to turn around and say 'thanks but no thanks' - that's just a huge letdown for me, knowing there are families that need help, like, yesterday.

"That's what I think we pay our taxes for. What we expect from our Government is that when our kids need help, they should be there to provide it.

"They're the next generation, they're the ones ultimately going to be inheriting this. And they're going on about ute taxes and stuff like that… should not our tamariki be the most important thing right now?"

Anthony says Waitematā DHB has been in contact to offer an apology and told him they were reviewing processes to ensure what they went through is never repeated.

*This name has been changed to protect her identity.

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