Mental health: Percentage of 1737 phone line callers hanging up waiting nearly doubles over past three years

But the service says most people have their call answered within 10 minutes.
But the service says most people have their call answered within 10 minutes. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Newshub can reveal the percentage of callers to the 1737 mental health line who have hung up while waiting in a queue has nearly doubled over the past three years.

In January 2020, 16 percent of callers to 1737 hung up while they were in the queue. Three years later, it was 31 percent. It peaked in November last year at 33 percent.

The ACT Party's health spokesperson Brooke Van Velden called the figures "really concerning".

"We're telling people it's okay to need help, but the resources aren't there for when they're reaching out for it. People are being left in a queue unable to access the help they need when they're in mental distress."

Whakarongorau, which runs the National Telehealth Service, including 1737, said there's been an increase in the clinical complexity observed across its services over the past five years, with the average length of 1737 calls jumping 50 percent. However, 79 percent of people who call get their call answered within 10 minutes, it said.

The 1737 service is a free call or text service for people needing mental health support. A trained counsellor can speak with the caller to develop a care plan or refer them to another service.

However, the figures obtained by Newshub show a higher proportion of callers are deciding to hang up before hearing from anyone on the other end than a few years ago.

A response to a Written Parliamentary Question (WPQ) lodged by the ACT Party highlights the trend upwards in the percentage of people dropping off. The figures provided are represented in the graph below.

Van Velden said more people are acknowledging "it's okay not to be okay" and are seeking support in a vulnerable time. 

"I think it's really disappointing that where the Government has said they would provide a phone line service for people to access help, we're seeing more and more New Zealanders look for that help but get left on hold."

Acting National Telehealth Service chief executive Glynis Sandland told Newshub in the 12 months to June 30, 2022, its mental health and addiction teams responded to 184,500 contacts (calls and texts). That's to the 1737 line as well as the Gambling Helpline, the Alcohol Drug Helpline and the Depression Helpline.

However, Sandland said the service is funded to respond to 146,336 contacts.

"We continue to have ongoing discussions with Te Whatu Ora on how to respond to this demand long term," Sandland said. "In the last 12 months that has seen us stand up alternative models of care involving peer support services, and employing mental health graduates in the service to respond to text messages."

The increase in workload is put down to "societal views about mental challenges" changing and therefore more people seeking help, as well as challenges in accessing face-to-face services, and COVID-19 and other events like the cyclone and flooding having "an impact on services like ours". 

"Our mental health and addictions services are designed for one-off brief intervention support, with an open door to return for support," Sandland said.

"Over the last five years, we have seen an increase in the clinical complexity presented across our services. The number of people calling in crisis and with suicide risk has also increased.

"Around 16 percent of contacts indicate previous or current mental health service involvement. The result is that the average length of a 1737 call has increased 50 percent."

Sandland said youth are also increasingly using 1737. 

Jo Chiplin, Te Whatu Ora's interim director for mental health, said the agency "remains in regular contact with Whakarongorau to ensure funding levels are consistent with demand and that it has the capacity to respond to unexpected events such as Cyclone Gabrielle".

"Information regularly provided to us by Whakarongorau has shown in general call volumes to mental health and addiction lines have been decreasing over the last 18 months. However, Whakakrongorau has identified an increasing complexity of the type of calls it receives over the years."

Chiplin said it increased funding for the new peer-support line during COVID to increase capacity and last week Te Whatu Ora mental health leaders met with Whakarongorau "to discuss options for continued support for this service". 

"We have reached out to Whakarongorau to understand the concerns."

Mental health has been a focus for the Government, with a massive $1.9 billion allocated towards support in Budget 2019. Included in that was $20.8 million over four years for digital and telehealth services focused on mental health needs. However, the delivery on the overall investment has been criticised

Van Velden said there is an argument for more funding for telehealth services

"I think the issue here is the Government has been obsessed with wanting to restructure the entire health care system, and it's been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on administrative change. But at the same time, nothing has changed for people who actually need to access care."

Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall told Newshub telehealth services are "an important part of our services for mental health and a range of other health services as well, including for COVID vaccinations. 

"We're funding more telehealth services than ever before," she said.

The minister said it's important to have a range of different mental health services available to Kiwis. She said the Government's "been doing the work of delivering care".

"We also have basically a drop-in GP service for counselling that's now rolled out across half the country as well as kaupapa Māori and Pasifika and youth services. There is a wide service offering for mental health now."

Van Velden said people have been "finding it really tough over the last few years" during the pandemic.

"A lot of people didn't have family support or the community support they usually would because we weren't able to meet and see people in the same way We usually would.

"A lot of people found the stress of their businesses quite challenging, not being able to be at school and be around new friends, very stressful. I suspect a lot of people are still feeling a level of anxiety with the floods and the cyclone."

She said there will always be an event happening "that will lead to them needing support". 

"What's really important is if the Government says we want to give people support for their time of need, that it's actually there for them."