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September 25, 2017 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Christchurch and the Mental Health Crisis

CW: Suicide/self harm mentions


I was struck by the article penned by Rose McIlhone discussing the suicide of her cousin (Issue 20), and the way our government ignores mental health. As a fellow ex-Christchurchian, the mention of the impact of the earthquakes, and the guilty release of escaping to another city, spoke volumes to me. I intended to write this as a letter to the editor, but the more I thought about it the angrier I got about the disregard our politicians display toward issues of mental illness in our country.  

The whole country is experiencing a mental health crisis, and nowhere is it more apparent than among the young people of Christchurch. According to the latest statistics, Canterbury has the highest suicide rate in the country, and the number of people seeking help for mental health issues has increased dramatically in the past seven years. So many people I know have trauma-related issues and, with the mental health system stretched past breaking point, it falls to teenagers who are struggling themselves to attempt to hold each other up. While the details of the stories may vary, too many of us have had the experience of staying up till dawn talking a friend out of suicide.

Everyone has been impacted in different ways by the quakes, but there are some common themes. Rates of depression and anxiety disorders have rocketed, especially among students, and I fall into the latter category. At this point pretty much anything can cause me strife — from having to send an email, to figuring out where to sit in my lectures. Along with that is a collection of direct trauma symptoms. Turns out it’s not actually normal to be pushed to the edge of a panic attack when the wind makes the windows rattle, or to analyse the construction of every building you enter to figure out how quickly it’d collapse in a quake. That fear hasn’t abated since leaving Christchurch. The tall buildings of Lambton Quay terrify me, and on days where I’m feeling particularly anxious I struggle to go to lectures, as a large majority of the buildings that I have classes in are constructed of brick.

While I’ve been trying to escape from the reality of Christchurch for so long, I find myself returning to it again and again in my writing, even when I don’t intend to. Houses are a prevalent theme; blank-eyed and empty they rot in the margins of my notebooks, crumbling in between the lines of my occasional attempts at poetry. Christchurch is something that never leaves you, and that creeping feeling of guilt has stuck with me too. As I watch my friends and family get steadily, terrifyingly worse, let down by a collapsing and underfunded system, I start to wonder whether I would be more help if I’d stayed, rather than just being a voice on the end of the phone.

But this isn’t just about me. I’m sick and tired of my city and the people I care for having their needs brushed aside by a government only in it to line their own pockets, determined to deny that there’s a problem. Earlier this year National de-funded Lifeline, one of NZ’s biggest suicide prevention hotlines. This is not an isolated incident. The Canterbury DHB has suffered funding cuts multiple years in a row, even as the demand for services post-earthquake continues to increase at a phenomenal rate. Bill English maintains that, just as he claims there is no housing crisis, our mental health systems are working fine, and need no overhaul. I refuse to accept this.

So, Bill English, I challenge you to look me in the eye; at the self inflicted scars on the bodies of the people I love; at the primary school kids in Christchurch unable to get help for anxiety and suicidal thoughts — and tell all of us where your “care” and “support” has been these past seven years. Can you truly say that you and your government are doing the best they can, when so many of us are being pushed to the brink? Because I don’t think you can.

For the sake of the people I’ve left behind, I hope by the time this is published that there has been a change in government, because god only knows how many more of us will die if we’re stuck with another three years of a party that’s only in it for themselves.


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