For quake-affected kids, not all wounds bleed

Government, and future governments, need to continue to factor the unseen cost of disasters into their long-term planning, writes Carol Mutch

From May 1, there will be seven more mental health support workers in earthquake-affected Canterbury and Kaikoura schools. This might be a fact that passes by many New Zealanders. We have become somewhat immune to the ongoing plights of our fellow citizens in the traumatic events, great and small, that play out on our television screens night after night. Compassion fatigue is a real concern as international aid agencies have found as they try to get us to open our hearts and our wallets to those in need. What is important about this announcement is not that the recipients of these mental health services need your compassion (or your money) but that this announcement signals some important lessons we all need to learn.

As I commute between my home in Canterbury and my job in Auckland, I frequently meet people who think that Christchurch is all fixed and life is back to normal. I often don’t know where to begin to challenge their thinking. I am usually polite and make some innocuous remarks while my head spins with questions I want to ask them. Have you been to Christchurch lately? Did you know that several thousand people are still waiting for their houses to be repaired? And hundreds more for their houses to be re-repaired? Did you know that children who weren’t even born when the earthquakes happened are being diagnosed with quake-related mental health, behavioural and social adjustment issues? The list of questions could go on. But until my travel companions face their own traumas and then struggle through the long road to recovery, they will not truly comprehend.

Yet, we are as a nation becoming more aware of mental health issues. It is no longer helpful to tell someone who is not coping to “suck it up” or “get over it”. The image of the tough silent Kiwi bloke is also slowly being challenged. High-profile campaigners such as John Kirwan and Mike King regularly bring mental health matters to our attention. Even the Returned Services Association has publicly highlighted the harm that can be done to soldiers and their families by post-traumatic stress disorder. This year’s Anzac poppy collection took the theme that “not all wounds bleed”.

When a child tells you they had heard that “your life flashes before your eyes before you die” and that they lay there waiting for that to happen, you know they could need professional support to deal with their trauma.

Since 2012, I have been in and out of schools in disaster zones. I have talked to children whose homes burned before their eyes in Australian bushfires, to Canterbury teachers who risked their lives to rescue children, to Japanese principals who didn’t find their own families for weeks because they had to look after homeless children post-tsunami. I have also talked to survivors of the Kobe and Sichuan earthquakes who are now adults and have told me of how the physical, emotional and psychological scars might lessen but they never go away.

When a child tells you they had heard that “your life flashes before your eyes before you die” and that they lay there waiting for that to happen, you know they could need professional support to deal with their trauma. We also know those who have a history of dislocation, disadvantage or prior trauma will take much longer to recover – and disasters have a way of severely impacting our most vulnerable communities.

The Ministry of Education’s trauma and mental health teams, the many agencies that provided post-quake counselling, the Allright? campaign that reminded us it was OK to ask for help – these all did their best but they were often withdrawn too soon, spread too thinly or chronically under-funded. Seven mental health staff, counsellors and community workers are not going to produce miracles but it’s a start.

It is important that post-disaster mental health issues are being taken seriously. It is important that we take the lessons from Canterbury and we get onto to these issues sooner in Kaikoura and Hurunui. It is also important that we understand that wherever we are in New Zealand, we are at risk of major seismic, environmental or weather-related events. These events will take a wide range of short and long-term measures to get communities back to their pre-disaster equilibrium. And so, the people of earthquake affected Canterbury and Kaikoura do not need your compassion or your money but they do your support to ensure that this Government, and future governments, continue to factor the real cost of unseen consequences of disasters into their long-term planning.

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