Part II:The dire straits of mental health services in Wānaka

Alexandra Hodge leads the Wānaka Mental Health Peer Support Group.

Alexandra Hodge is the facilitator and founder of the Wānaka Mental Health Peer Support Group. When she moved to Wānaka three years ago, Hodge noticed that many of her friends from the Wānaka hospitality scene were depressed and struggling. “There was an uncertainty of how to get any kind of support for those struggles, and then sort of a resignation when they found out what was available, that they couldn’t ever even think to afford it,” Hodge remembers. 

Having grown up in California where she had worked in drug rehabilitation and with a homeless shelter, Hodge was no stranger to mental health struggles, but was shocked to discover there were no mental health support groups in Wānaka compared to the abundance of groups in her hometown. She started her own, and now the Wānaka Mental Health Peer Support Group is nearing its second birthday. 

The group meets up twice a month, once in Wānaka’s Plunket room and once for a walk in order to accommodate different kinds of sociability, with the average number of attendees ranging from six to nine. 

In May Hodge went to a Peer Support forum in Dunedin hosted by the SDHB, and said the forum really wanted to hear about and encourage peer support. She goes on to say, “but the unfortunate thing is, they wanted to encourage it without really investing any funding into it.” Hodge sees peer support as something that “fills the gap” for those that can’t afford traditional mental health care such as counselling, but thinks the SDHB wants the group to fill that gap without providing the necessary resources. She hopes that might change in the future. 

The price of counselling and similar care is something that Hodge is very concerned about. “Your average counsellor is $120, $150 an hour, which for the average person is pretty unfeasible, especially if you’re looking to go for a little bit of a length of time and actually work through something,” she explains. For Wānaka, a community full of young people working minimum wage hospitality jobs whilst battling high rents, the financial burden of counselling is practically out of the question. 

There are brief intervention services where someone can go to their GP and get five sessions covered, but Hodge says the waiting list for that is long, you can’t choose your counsellor and it goes on your permanent medical record —  something a lot of people aren’t comfortable with. 

Hodge does praise one Wānaka initiative, saying “the Fit Collective and Community Networks have started a fund and do fundraisers, where you can go in and request money anonymously for counselling sessions. You just go to a counsellor, say you want to use the Community Network fund, and they submit a form, where all it is is your initials.” 

She says a lot of people in the peer support group have benefited from this subsidisation and confidentiality, although it only covers five sessions which is a hurdle for people with more long-term mental health problems or complex trauma backgrounds.

Local, Vicki Wise has struggled with bipolar disorder for the past few years, often going in and out of Dunedin’s Wakari Hospital for treatment and care. The longest she’s stayed in hospital is six months and has undergone various drug changes as well as 24 sessions of Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Living in Wānaka for mental health care is “really hard,” Wise admits.

It’s community-led initiatives such as Wānaka Mental Health Peer Support Group, the Fit Collective, Kahu Youth, Miramare, WellSouth and Community Networks which are working to help plug gaps in the system. These efforts are amazing and should be applauded for their hard work in helping the people who arguably need it most. One amazing initiative in Wānaka is an NGO called PACT, which provides case workers to help with mental health and addiction. 

The downside is however, that you have to be a resident in order to receive this support, which might sound fair until you remember that Wānaka is a town that only functions thanks to people on temporary visas. 

Wise says, “People believe that temporary visas might be six months, but when I was on temporary visas it was like every year, and it was for several years.” She’s now campaigning in an effort to change this rule. Wise has been going to every peer support meeting from the beginning and now leads sessions and workshops. “I do it because I care about people and I don’t want them to go through some of the stuff I’ve had to go through in the mental health sector, so I can try and help them with what I’ve learnt,” she says. 

Another avenue for help is WellSouth, which has a brief intervention service to provide primary mental health support for patients who are 20 years and older. Jodie Black, Brief Intervention Service Team Leader of WellSouth, says “If people are experiencing difficulties with their mental wellbeing they can discuss this with their GP, who is able to give further information about which services might be appropriate. The GP can refer people to WellSouth’s Brief Intervention Service for difficulties that are considered to be mild to moderate in nature.” WellSouth offers up to five sessions of support, assessment and treatment. These can look like psychological strategies to help with managing your experiences in a safe and confidential environment, education, referral to a more appropriate service if required and family/whanau involvement as appropriate. “The Brief Intervention Service will make initial contact within two weeks of receiving a referral to discuss further services and/or options while the person waits for their first appointment,” says Black. If you’re under 20 years old, you can contact Adventure Development directly to access a similar service.

When we look at the mental health situation in Wanaka, it’s a collection of individuals. People like Hands, Wise, Travers, Hodge and Sorensen, who are all trying their best to look after themselves and others in the community they love. There’s no bad guy here, no flaming gun, but there is a system that needs work. Issues such as costs, waiting lists, staff, crisis beds, temporary visas and funding can all be solved, but note that the longer those issues go on for, the more they continue to impact upon some of the most vulnerable people in our society. 

In March the SHDB are coming to Wānaka and will be talking to members of the peer support group for feedback surrounding mental health services as part of the co-design service SHDB will be doing in the Central Lakes region. If you’ve got feedback, reach out. 

If you are struggling with some of the issues mentioned in this story, the Wānaka Mental Health Peer Support Group have a tea and chat session every second Wednesday of the month from 6-7pm at 51 Ardmore Street, as well as a monthly walk on the last Saturday of the month from 10am, meeting at the Edgewater Hotel Cafe. There’s also a 1737 service which is free to text or call at any time for counselling support. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. 


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