Mental health is still often a taboo subject in New Zealand, but with the number of sufferers increasing each year these complex issues need urgent attention.
We spoke to Kat McKay and Lineé van der Meer about their new organisation, Mental Health Therapies NZ who aim to provide essential mental health services for kiwis who may not be able to easily access treatment.
We hear a lot about there being a mental health crisis in New Zealand. Is that accurate?
In many respects we are in crisis with our mental health and our mental health services. Our suicide numbers continue to increase each year and one in five, or nearly 1 million New Zealanders experience a mental illness or significant mental distress each year. Yet approximately 75% (750,000) are not able to access the mental health support they need. This means that for most sufferers, if they are unable to pay for private therapy, their only real option is to take medication. The problem here is that research shows that anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication is only effective for about 30% of people and they often have quite serious side effects. This leaves a huge number of people every year having to struggle through alone.
What are some practical, starter steps into caring for our mental health?
There are so many ways we can nurture our mental health and different things will help different people but a good place to start is with the things that release the ‘feel good’ hormones in our body – being outside in the fresh air and sunshine, any exercise that gets your heart rate up, eating nourishing food and listening to your favourite music are good examples. It’s also important to get enough rest.
From an emotional perspective it’s also important to be connecting to others and building relationships. When we aren’t feeling well it is easy to isolate ourselves until we ‘feel better’ but it’s when we feel like isolating ourselves that we really need to be connecting with friends and loved ones the most.
If someone else is suffering, what are some telltale signs and how can we help them?
When people are struggling with their mental health, there are not always outward signs to see as some people are very good at ‘putting on a brave face’ in front of others. However, some signs to watch for are if someone has a noticeable change in behaviour – perhaps they start to turn down opportunities to socialise, become withdrawn or become more absent from work. Their sleeping or eating habits may change or they may become more emotional with teary or angry outbursts.
The best ways to help are to check in with them regularly, keep inviting them to social occasions, let them know that you care, guide them to support services if needed and be patient. When people are in a bad place, they don’t want to feel like they are a burden or to have expectations placed on them to get better quicker so it’s important to show empathy and patience.
What gave you the push you needed to start the charity?
It is often the people who need counselling the most that can least afford to pay for it. Unfortunately, with the way the current system works, it is only those who are in deepest crisis who can access government funded mental health services. We know that talk therapy works but at somewhere between $120 to $180 per session, it is out of reach for the majority of people who need it. As someone who has lived with anxiety and is involved in various anxiety and depression support groups, I was tired of hearing people struggling with mental illness but not being able to access the ongoing support they need to heal and thrive.
I felt strongly that more needs to be done to fill this gap and that anyone experiencing mental distress should have access to quality mental health care – that it shouldn’t be dependent on social status or their bank balance. So we set up Mental Health Therapies NZ to fund up to 12 months of counselling for New Zealanders who would not otherwise have access to it.
What has the feedback been like from the people who have used mental health specific services?
People who are able to access ongoing counselling have the best chance of being able to heal from the underlying causes of their mental health struggle and therefore have the opportunity to thrive. They can move past and let go of trauma, insecurities, fears and unhealthy patterns of behaviour. The ripple effect of this is healthier relationships, stronger resilience, better physical health and greater income potential. These are all aspects of life that deteriorate and suffer when someone is mentally or emotionally unwell.
Lineé, you specialize in maternal mental health. What are the particular challenges facing mums of small children and how do you help them?
Being a mum of young children is no doubt a very demanding and vulnerable time in a woman’s life. She might not be sleeping well. She might have little support and opportunity for self-care or time away from her kids. She might feel under pressure to ‘do it all’ and have unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a good mother, leaving her feeling anxious, overwhelmed and constantly stressed.
On top of that, as a new mother, she is going through a significant psychological transformation, having to come to terms with her new identity and role as a mother, as well as what that means in terms of her relationship with her partner and the other people in her life. These challenges, combined with possible hormonal and other physical factors, can lead to mums struggling with issues like postnatal depletion, burn out, anxiety and depression, or they might just feel that they are not thriving or enjoying their lives as they would like to.
In my psychotherapy practice, I provide a safe space for mums to reflect on and process their experiences. I believe getting the basics right is so important, which is why we will often address issues like sleep, nutrition, exercise, getting more support, as well making self-care a priority. We will also look at strategies and tools to help them address their current challenges, so that they can get to a place where they are enjoying motherhood and feeling and functioning well.
What is your vision for the charity’s future?
Our vision is to provide a source of early intervention so less people decline into crisis. The earlier people receive the help they need, the quicker they can heal and move on with their lives. We see our role in funding ongoing counselling as a path to building the fence at the top of the cliff so less people need the ambulance at the bottom. Of course our effectiveness will depend on the amount of funding we are able to raise and we are constantly looking at ways to build awareness for our Mission and attract the funding we need.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to access your service but felt reluctant or scared to do so?
Counselling is an incredibly personal and vulnerable process and it takes time and hard work so we understand that it takes a lot of courage to take that step in asking for help. But the pay off is worth it! We encourage people to keep their eyes on the end result – the freedom, the peace of mind and the relief from daily struggle that doing the work creates.
We also give people the choice of counsellor or psychologist they want to work with because we know the importance of being able to connect to and gel with your therapist. This gives them control of their therapy so if they don’t feel comfortable with the therapist they choose, they can choose a new one.
At the moment, while we build up our funding, people who need counselling can put their name down via our website to be contacted once applications open for funding.