Cyclone Gabrielle: Fresh fears in cyclone-affected regions as leaders, support workers suffer burnout

In a special report into the very raw reality of depression in cyclone-affected regions, Newshub has found there's increasing concern for a new group of people.

The listeners, the helpers, who've put their own trauma on hold to help others in the six months since Cyclone Gabrielle, are now struggling in Hawke's Bay and Tairāwhiti.

NZ Police community relations manager Sergeant Anaru Graham is big on well-being, and he's worried members of the community who've stepped up and been instrumental in helping others rebuild their lives are now tired with emotions running high.

"We're really starting to talk about who's looking after the people looking after the people, because we are starting to see support workers, community leaders that have stood up and helped so many people. They are really at the burnout stage," said Sgt Graham.

They are the sort of people with a sense of obligation, he said, who don't want to let others down.

"These are the ones who are our priority to keep an eye on at the moment because people have had their eyes on those directly affected, but who's watching the helpers in our communities?" he said.

He said in a multi-agency workshop last month, that wellbeing and connectivity came through as crucial needs for communities and leaders from Tūtira to Pōrangahau.

Sgt Graham said while community events and social interaction at community hubs like pubs are helping people open up and talk, it's often not obvious who is at breaking point.

"It's really epitomised when you are walking onto properties and people are saying how tired they are, how they want to give up and they have had enough. Often it's not who you expect. It's the ones who are withdrawn and that's not normal for them, those are alarm bells. Or just as likely it's those who have all their affairs in order, the bills are paid and the house is in order."

NZ Police community relations manager Sergeant Anaru Graham.
NZ Police community relations manager Sergeant Anaru Graham. Photo credit: Newshub

Pākōwhai orchardist Peter Marshall has just completed four months of counselling after suffering a breakdown.

Cyclone Gabrielle wiped out his house, his daughter's home, and part of the orchard and he said he "fairly quickly went crazy and was having bad thoughts" after burglars targeted his property and he had a heart attack.

"I lost 16 kilograms in three months, I wasn't sleeping," he told Newshub, sitting amongst silt-ridden family treasures and tossed furniture inside his once-meticulous home.

"We are supposed to be tough, it's not supposed to affect us, but I found out I was nowhere near as tough as I thought I was."

He said with the support of his family and a counsellor, he's now doing well and is urging "anyone who is suffering mentally to go and get help".

"I would implore you explicitly to get help, it's there and it's free whether it's through Rural Support Trust or your GP. It's just a matter of picking up the phone. I wish to hell I had done it on February 16," Marshall told Newshub.

Pākōwhai orchardist Peter Marshall.
Pākōwhai orchardist Peter Marshall. Photo credit: Newshub

East Coast Rural Support Trust's Jonathan Bell, whose team drive unbranded cars when visiting struggling farmers and growers to remain covert, said the notion of keeping your brain healthy is critical.

He described a recent visit to the Pātoka community by former NZ Police crisis negotiator Lance Burdett who asked the crowd "how many of you have hurt your body somewhere and been to physio?"

"Everyone put up their hands," said Bell. "So he said, 'so everyone has been to therapy? What's the difference?'"

Black Fern Ruby Tui has also visited Hawke's Bay where she talked about "getting yourself mentally fit, training your brain just as you would do with your body physically".

Bell, like Sgt Graham, is seeing community leaders and support workers like bankers, rural stock agents, insurance agents and vets now not coping.

"People are unloading on them, and they are not counsellors so they themselves need help."

He said a lot of 'wellbeing' work is being done by his team to check in and support these groups.

East Coast Rural Support Trust is also able to get farmers into a GP within 48 hours now if they need help, but its 14 counsellors are "tapped out".

Damage left after the cyclone.
Damage left after the cyclone. Photo credit: Newshub

Napier Family Centre CEO Kerry Henderson said her team of 60 staff who also run counselling sessions and family support in the region have seen a 120 percent increase in demand from young people for counselling between February and July. Adult demand for services increased by 35 percent.

"Everybody's big is big. The event that's happened to you is big, it may not be as big as your neighbour's but it's still big for you," said Bell.

He likens the recovery from Cyclone Gabrielle to being entered in a marathon.

"You've had no training. You don't know the course and at some stage the adrenaline runs out. This journey people are on could take up to 15 years to rectify but people will get through it, and the land will heal itself," said Bell.

NZ Post RD3 rural delivery contractor Leo Hall, whose Pākōwhai run is one of the worst-affected in Hawke's Bay, said in the meantime many flood-affected residents feel New Zealanders have forgotten what they are still going through.

"Many are existing - that's it, and that's not what life is about," said Hall.

"In New Zealand we are not good at asking for help, that number 8 wire mentality and all, so they will keep boxing on until something cracks. That's not what I want, we need to be a village, not individuals."

As the first person residents see each day, Hall is their 'constant'.

He's a listener, a "practical helper" with a shovel at weekends and passionate about brain health.

"You're always happy when you see the light come back in their eyes. There's some hope." 

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