Expert says there are 'simple', immediate actions to improve mental health following Cyclone Gabrielle

One month on from Cyclone Gabrielle and the Government is yet to develop a wider plan to respond to mental health. However, one expert says there are simple immediate actions that can be taken.

Dr Ian Soosay, an honorary senior lecturer in the department of psychological medicine at Auckland University, said the Government needs to understand who is being affected by the cyclone and identify the gaps.

Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall told Newshub Nation on Saturday the first action in the mental health response to the cyclone was prioritising $3 million worth of funding which includes, supporting the Mental Health Foundation's Allsorts campaign and flying in mental health specialists to some of the most affected areas.

This is a part of the recovery phase of a wider plan which the Minister said officials are still bringing together.

When pushed on when the longer-term support plan for post-cyclone mental health support will be rolled out, Verrall replied "it will be in the next month or so," which is when the Minister will apply for additional funding if it's needed.  

Dr Soosay told Rebecca Wright on Newshub Nation the two-phase approach, response and recovery, the Government has taken for the cyclone is sensible. 

"The Cyclone is quite a complex disaster… The timeline has been spread out, so we have the Auckland floods and then the cyclone. Geographically it's spread out. The type of communities and the services they have in place are also quite varied," Dr Soosay said.

While he acknowledges there are constraints on the Government so some elements of a plan will take longer, he said there are lots of simple interventions that can be done right at the beginning such as understanding who is being affected and identifying the gaps.

For example, it is very common for people to experience a range of post-traumatic symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, being more emotional, being more withdrawn and having flashbacks.

"Some of those symptoms… don't necessarily need mental health professionals. So you have people moving around in insecure housing, there's a lot of interventions that can be done early on which are kind of quite simple."

The other thing is understanding who is being affected and identifying gaps.

"Disasters tend to show weaknesses in our system," Dr Soosay said.

He broke the gaps down into two elements. 

The first, Dr Soosay said, is whether we have universal mental health coverage.

If someone is forced to move areas due to cyclone damage they may not be able to access services.

The second element is if there are gaps then the pressure will go to specialist services.

"But also, disasters increase the prevalence of severe disorders and we tend to see that over the course of 10 years," Dr Soosay said.

"With mental health what we tend to see is it emerges over time, it waxes and wanes, so you need services that are stood up to support the community."

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