Whakaari / White Island after the eruption. Photo: Bay of Plenty Civil Defence

A Whakatāne therapist says the Whakaari eruption and Christchurch mosque shooting reveal a health system unable to deal with mass casualty events.

Whakaari after its eruption in 2019. Photo: Supplied/Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust

This comes amid calls for millions of dollars of promised mental health funding to be urgently re-routed to Canterbury and the Bay of Plenty.

Irene Begg, a trauma counsellor based near Whakatāne, was involved in the mental health response to the Whakaari eruption and the Christchurch mosque shooting.

She said the same problems of people suffering from vicarious trauma, struggling access to access funded mental health support, have cropped up in both tragedies, while hospital workers and emergency service staff could access counselling through their employer.

ACC only covered work-related mental injury and mental injury that was the result of a physical injury. Extended family members were not covered for funded counselling.

Begg believed the mental health system needs to be better prepared for traumatic events in the future, such as ACC widening its eligibility criteria so families were included.

“The likes of ACC should come to the party and at least offer 10 [counselling] sessions for people involved in such incidents or natural disasters where loved ones have been killed, and they have been affected by this,” she said.

In the 2019 budget, the government dedicated $455m for a frontline mental health service to be rolled out across the country over five years.

Health Minister Andrew Little previously said that it was unfortunate this had not yet reached the Bay of Plenty.

But Begg said there was no indication on when this will be available in the region.

“It’s all very vauge. The government says its going to roll out this and that, but we haven’t seen it in the provinces.”

Health minister Andrew Little previously said it was unfortunate the frontline mental health service had not been rolled out quicker in the Bay of Plenty. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Whakatāne psychologist Veerle Poels believed this additional support should be first made available in priority areas where traumatic events have occurred first, like Christchurch and the Bay of Plenty.

She said it was a “no-brainer” to roll out it out there, so people in need had easier access to mental health professionals.

National Party’s mental health spokesperson Matt Doocey said the Whakaari and Christchurch tragedies highlighted the the lack of mental health support available for some people.

He said out of the $455m of funding the government had earmarked for the frontline service, only $56 million had been spent, and the service had been rolled out to just 11 percent of GP services.

Doocey said the frontline service should be urgently rolled out to priority areas, such as the Bay of Plenty.

National Party’s mental health spokesperson Matt Doocey says the frontline service need to be rolled out in Bay of Plenty urgently. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Bay of Plenty District Health Board chief executive Pete Chandler said in a statement the DHB had not received any updates on the additional mental health service and when it might be rolled out to the area.

He said he did not expect to hear about it until later in January, due to the Christmas period shutdown.

“We will however be raising this topic at our regular DHB performance review with the Ministry, so that we are actively tracking progress on it,” he said.

Chandler said a new psycho-social support co-ordinator had started at the DHB in late December last year and at this stage, no additional funding for local community support had been deemed necessary.

“With the proximity of Christmas to Whakaari it is more likely that any notable increase in demand would be seen during January and, as such, we will be looking carefully at this data once we receive it,” he said.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson said in a statement the frontline service was being progressively rolled out across the country, with services available at more than 100 GP sites across 15 DHBs.

“Health Improvement Practitioners (HIPs) and Health Coaches/Support Workers had delivered over 47,000 sessions to date. The prioritisation of funding has been based on the readiness of the DHBs, primary health care and NGO providers in the area to provide the new services.”

The spokesperson said the next round of funding, including for the Bay of Plenty, would be in July this year.

Duty Minister Peeni Henare, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – which advises on ACC policy – and the Canterbury DHB has been contacted for comment

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