Cyclone Gabrielle: Health Minister Ayesha Verrall stands by mental health services but admits 'we are in a tough situation'

After a hellish start to the year for many New Zealanders in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle, mental health services across the country are under increased pressure. 

While increased services have been rolled out to affected areas, a broad-scale plan is not yet in place.

Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall sat down with Rebecca Wright on Newshub Nation to give an update on how the mental health response was progressing. 

Verrall said one of her first actions was "prioritising $3 million worth of funding to make sure we can make a start."

"That includes supporting the Mental Health Foundation's Allsorts campaign which is getting the message out to communities via a variety of different media that it is normal to feel all sorts of emotions following these traumatic events."

Verrall said the goal of this messaging was "to encourage conversations with each other and direct people to help if they need it."

Alongside this campaign, Verrall said they have "flown in mental health specialists to some of the most affected areas, and they are trying to build support, particularly for isolated communities."

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

Though the plan is not yet established, Verrall thinks New Zealand is much better positioned to deal with the mental health fallout of Cyclone Gabrielle, compared with previous events like the Christchurch earthquakes. 

She said "over the last five years this Government has built a primary health system from nothing. 

"We now have over 1000 people looking after people with mild to moderate mental health needs in the community, including in the affected regions."

Though it's a month since Cyclone Gabrielle, Verrall is comfortable with the time taken to develop the wider plan "because there was a psycho-social response going on in the week or two afterwards."

The services being provided now are a mix of new and pre-existing structures, and the Minister emphasised "there's also a kaupapa Māori thread, there's a Pacifica thread as well."

 "Those services exist in those communities in addition to wellbeing supports already being provided on the ground as part of the emergency response."

Verrall would not go into specifics about any funding in addition to the $3.25 million allocated so far. 

"When the costings come, we will take a look at those and assess what we can do.

"We are going to stand by the people who have been impacted in those communities, but equally, we need to go through a proper process to make sure that we fund the correct things."

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. 

Though Verrall repeatedly referred to the strength of the mental-health system established under Labour, National's associate spokesperson for health, Matt Doocey, released figures on Thursday that showed in the last year alone vacancies in psychiatry increased 125 percent. In psychology, they increased by 58 percent and in mental health nurses they increased by 91 percent. 

Verrall stands by the investment Labour has made in New Zealand's mental health workforce. 

"We grew that workforce from zero to over 1000 full-time equivalents in the Access and Choice program.

The specialist workforces have experienced a hike in vacancies "have also, in the last budget, been resourced for about a hundred million."

"Training and workforce development has been a really important part of the mental health work overall. 

"But indeed there are vacancies and we do need to keep working to address them," Verrall said.  

Verrall is confident in the service that has been established, but she does "want to be clear that there is pressure on people's wellbeing."

"People are going to find it tough because we are in a tough situation." 

Watch the full video for more. 

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