'A tsunami of need': Nearly half of psychiatrists would quit their job if they could

A new report has revealed the sobering reality of working on the front line of New Zealand's mental health crisis.

Nearly half of psychiatrists - 45 percent - would quit their job if they could, in the face of soaring demand for services.

"It certainly feels like a crisis. For the last few years we've been fighting fires and those fires continue to burn... we're struggling to put those out," Dr Paul Skirrow, NZCCP executive advisor, told Newshub. 

"They're overwhelmed with people wanting to see them - and that's just the people who can afford to pay."

Three-hundred and sixty-eight psychiatrists took part in the Toi Mata Hauora survey. Eighty-six percent reported an increase in the complexity of their caseload and 87 percent didn't feel like they were working in a well-resourced mental health service.

"We often feel like patients are being discharged to the community to fail," an anonymous respondent said. 

"The current system is unsustainable. We do not have enough staff or resources to retain staff, the staff around me are burnt out, unmotivated and it is painfully obvious," another said. 

The author of the study, Charlotte Chambers, says staff are struggling. 

"They are just absolutely overwhelmed by this tsunami of need. They're really worried about that. They know they're not able to give the optimal care to their patients because they're so short staffed and there's just not enough people to go round.

"One in three are suffering from very high levels of burnout and job stress... it's really worrying."

It takes over 10 years to train a psychiatrist. Experts say the country can't afford to lose any more.

"Psychiatrists are like the pillar of the mental health system. A lot of the work can't be done without them," Dr Chambers said. 

"We already know there are huge shortages. There are so many vacancies for positions around the country that they can't fill."

In 2019, the Government announced a $1.9 billion funding boost for mental health. But psychiatrists say it's made little difference.

"Our doctors are telling us that money has yet to hit the wards. They haven't seen any kind of tangible impact of that money," Dr Chambers said. 

Voices of Hope co-founder Jazz Thornton says it's extremely concerning. 

"It's alarming that we are not taking care of them... these are the front-line people, the ones who are acutely seeing everything that is going on. After this long, you would hope they would have the support they needed."

She says it will have an impact on patient care. 

"If they've got a psychiatrist who is seeing 30 patients in a day and is run off their feet and hasn't slept in two days, then they're not going to get the help they need - not at the fault of the psychiatrist, but at the fault of the system."

Dr Skirrow says it's an issue that shouldn't only concern those within the system. 

"We're hearing so many stories of people not being able to see anybody [for professional help]. That is very worrying - for all of us."

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