Youth mental health

Mind over matter – a youth mental health investigation

Mental health issues are a growing concern for young people both nationally and in the Mahurangi region. Ben Donaldson spoke with counsellors, police, parents and others to discuss the challenges and how to get help …

Warkworth Police youth aid officer John Williams is one of many concerned that youth mental health issues are growing fast in the Mahurangi region.

Since 2010, annual referrals of 11 to 18-year-olds to Marinoto, the youth mental health facility of Waitemata District Health Board (WDHB), have increased by 66 per cent.

Marinoto deals with high needs cases and a WDHB spokesperson says awareness around the issue has contributed to referral numbers rising.

However, John says the real challenge is that numbers are increasing for all levels of need.

“After 10 years in my role, I’m dealing with less youth crime, but a lot more children with anxiety issues,” he says.

“I have a number of students who are too anxious to go to school anymore. Because that’s a truancy problem, I get involved.”

Rodney College guidance counsellor Chris Byars says he has noticed a strong increase in the number of children coming to him with depression issues.

Meanwhile, Te Waka Youth service manager Melanie Torkington says the increase in young people with anxiety issues is a massive issue that needs attention.

Springboard Community Works founder Gary Diprose has also found himself working with more children around mental health.

“When I started in my role, mental health wasn’t even something I really considered,” Gary says.

“But an increase in awareness and anxiety has made it a huge part of the work we do.”

John Williams believes the use of technology is one of the leading factors behind this increase.

“A lot of children have devices in their bedrooms and many are addicted to checking social media.

“I deal with students who are regularly on their phones until the early hours of the morning and in some extreme cases, where devices are taken off them, they will become highly agitated.”

In May, Mahurangi College principal David Macleod banned the use of smartphones in class for this reason.

“There are many factors contributing to the declining mental health of our young people, but there is no doubt the use of social media is one of these,” Mr Macleod says.

At Rodney College, Chris Byars sees students becoming highly stressed and worried through large NCEA workloads and poverty.

Poverty prompted Melanie to set up Te Waka Youth in Wellsford this year.

She is one of many people concerned that this growing challenge is not matched by resources, leaving a huge gap that sees those with all levels of need fall through the cracks.

“People need access to professional help, but even through the private sector, the wait can be months,” she says. “When I moved to Wellsford, I thought I knew how little support there was for this issue, but I have since realised I was only scratching the surface.”

Chris says that because he is occupied with high needs children that require immediate attention, he is forced to place lower level cases on a long waiting list.

Mahurangi College guidance councillor Kerry Jenner, who has seen more than 10 per cent of the school’s students this year, says Warkworth is desperately in need of a youth centre.

“Children need local access to a service. I know a number of families that are unable to commute to the existing ones,” she says.

“We also need Maori and Pasifika specific services. Our approach to this issue needs to be different depending on culture.”

Melanie and Kerry are also concerned some services are still taking a medical approach to mental health issues.

“We need to take a holistic approach because of the complexities of mental health. The medical model is a dated one now,” Melanie says.

Talking it over

Mahurangi College students share their thoughts, from left, Samuel Chitty, Anna Veer, Lucy Rowe, Charlie Thornicroft, Max Harrison, Aborina Arawatau and Elena Cooper.

Mahurangi College students and peer mediators from Year 11 to Year 13, talk about the challenges and solutions of mental health issues.

What do young people need to be happy?

It’s important that young people feel they have good support and people that care around them, both at school and at home. They don’t need to have a big friend group, as long as they can trust in the friends they have. Feeling accepted regardless of their characteristics is an important thing. Our school has a diverse range of students in terms of culture and gender. They all need to feel accepted and safe in their everyday environment. Young people also need to have some focus on themselves. That means being a part of a sports club, playing music or any other hobby that gives them enjoyment.

What are things that make young people feel down?

Social media is a huge contributor to negative thoughts. Everything seems perfect and it creates false expectations for people who can’t match that in real life. Pressure from parents and peers can also get people down. They get stressed about disappointing their parents with things like school grades and worry they won’t fit in if they don’t do things like drink with peers. Once young people get down, they often isolate themselves. This makes things worse, leading to more serious problems.

How can we support young people to improve their wellbeing?

The easiest thing to do is just to check on someone once a day by asking if they are doing all right. Make sure to repeat the question if they don’t take it seriously. Let people feel comfortable about discussing whatever their issues may be. If they need to seek help at a higher level, support them with their choice and don’t be the judge of how serious their issue is, let them make that decision. We can also give people a compliment each day. Everyone is usually so quick to criticise, so it’s nice to receive a positive comment. This is a space where social media can be used. It’s easier to message people at times rather than approach them face to face, especially if you don’t know them well.

A government perspective

The government hopes to have a better understanding of mental health issues following the completion of its mental health and addiction enquiry in October.

Health Minister Dr David Clark says more needs to be done to address the issue, particularly with youth.

“The enquiry will give people the chance to give feedback around mental health services, which will guide our future decisions,” Dr Clark says.

“In the meantime, we’ve moved to support young people when it’s clear not all needs are being met.”

New initiatives for mental health include school-based health services for decile four schools and a programme to help children in earthquake affected Christchurch and Kaikoura.

Youth Minister Peeni Henare is also hoping to gain direction from the enquiry and a new youth health and wellbeing survey.

“There are particular difficulties for those who are Maori, Pasifika, disabled, refugee or part of the LGBTI community,” Mr Henare says.

“The survey will allow us to direct our resources in the best way possible to help these people.”

Her story - facing the challenge and overcoming anxiety

A 15-year-old Rodney girl talks about her journey from high achievement to high anxiety and how she is learning to manage …

Growing up, I always wanted to go to school and hang out with friends. From about Year 4 onwards I would be doing a sleep-over at someone’s place almost every weekend. I was a very high achiever across all subjects at school. I was also a keen dancer. I would practice seven days a week for around 14 hours in total. Most weekends I would also perform in dance competitions across Auckland.

It wasn’t until I turned 14 that I began to notice symptoms of anxiety. Suddenly what were simple activities began to distress me. Going out with friends became difficult. I would get anxious that they didn’t like me. I began to stay home more and more so I didn’t have to deal with that. I would freak out if a stranger approached me asking for directions or if I had to use public transport. I could also have a panic attack if I went somewhere I hadn’t been before, especially if I didn’t have my parents with me to talk to when those feelings came on.

It got to the point where I stopped going out and would just stay up in my room by myself. After seeing me struggle, Mum helped me decide to go to sessions with a councillor. We would talk about what my issues were. This brought my anxiety levels down again, so I could go back to doing my normal activities.

Then, at the end of last year, I burnt out. I found I had set academic goals that were unattainable and the pressure of not being able to reach them got to me. I became exhausted mentally and physically. Because of how tired I was I became very vulnerable to emotions and began to have panic attacks. For example, I would receive a set of test results that weren’t very good and I would freak out. I had only talked about my issues with the counsellor rather than worked on methods to manage the anxiety, so I found myself not knowing what to do.

With the introduction of NCEA at school, I was under increasing pressure. I started getting symptoms such as a tight feeling in my chest and feeling like I would be sick walking to school. In the end, I would have a panic attack just putting on my school uniform or when I woke up in the morning. My lowest point was when I had to be picked up from a concert by my Dad because I would panic around large crowds. I also got really frustrated because I would just start crying in class and I didn’t know why. I would have to go to the dean’s office and calm down, but when I returned to class I would break down again. I didn’t want any attention because I felt there was a stigma attached to mental health issues. At the time, I felt like I would never escape the difficulties I was facing.

After two weeks of this intense anxiety, Mum pushed me in to seeing someone who specialised in dealing with panic attacks. Because of the state I was in at the time I wasn’t very forthcoming with the idea, but she told me I needed to sort things out as soon as possible. The specialist did an intensive programme with me where I would be forced to hyperventilate by heavy breathing so I could bring on anxious symptoms and try to manage them. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but after three weeks of doing it I could stop the symptoms from coming on. The following two weeks I was forced to visualise activities that made me panic, like going to school. I would do that up to 10 times each day.

I’m currently doing the final stage of learning, where I practice going to places I feel uncomfortable. I might not go the whole way in one go, but instead get a little closer each time so I can mentally adjust to each location. I had stopped going to school, but I’m back doing a couple of classes each day now. I have the option to go home if I need to or leave the classroom, but I try to stay and use what I’ve practiced. Socially, I’ve improved a lot and can catch a bus with friends now. It’s a work in progress, but I’m getting more comfortable all the time.

I would tell other young people in the same situation that mental health problems are nothing to be ashamed of. It’s just like a physical injury that’s internal. Don’t be afraid to get specialist help because a lot of people have these problems and the training really does work. I personally found keeping away from social media and making sure I had as little time alone as possible improved my feelings. Being alone can lead you to a dark place so find anyone or even a pet you can be with. Once you get help, you realise you can live your life properly.

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A mother’s view

We recognised pretty quickly that our daughter was having issues with anxiety. She was a very high achiever and confident performer in dance so it was clear something wasn’t right. When she became reluctant to go to school, we knew we needed to get her help as soon as possible. We looked into our options and found a psychiatrist in Takapuna who looked appropriate, but even going privately the wait was going to be three months. That wasn’t soon enough for us, so we found someone in Auckland City instead who was able to see her straight away. It’s there she engaged in seven weeks of intensive psycho-therapy. We are really involved in driving her places so she can get used to them and expand her comfort zone. The school has been great in sending through work so we could continue her education from home during this difficult period. Financially it’s crippled us, but as a parent it’s something you just do without question. She hit rock bottom, but it’s great to see that being proactive in getting help is allowing her to get her life back, and we can see it’s working.

Mental health self-help guide

There are things we can all do to help prevent and manage our mental health such as living a healthy lifestyle and keeping perspective.

Mahurangi College guidance councillor Kerry Jenner says while many issues do require professional help, many enquiries she deals with are often just normal emotional experiences.

“We are all guaranteed to feel down on multiple occasions in our lives, but as long as those feelings don’t become permanent, we need to realise they are just normal emotional reactions,” Kerry says.

“The best way to deal with it is to embrace these feelings as a challenge and when we overcome that difficulty we become a stronger person.”

Te Waka Youth service manager Melanie Torkington is a strong believer in what she calls resiliency factors for keeping mentally healthy.

However, she recommends seeking professional help if you are unable to maintain a positive outlook.

Her resilience factors are:

•    Good sleep, nutrition, shelter and safety.

•    Consistency with your environment and good routines.

•    Connection with culture, interests, clubs and things that promote  belonging and identity.

•    Exercise and activity.

•    Getting outdoors in open spaces or nature.

•    Being of service to people or animals.

•    Close connection with other people.

Melanie is also running a presentation in Mangawhai called ‘Let’s talk about it. Suicide in NZ. Why, who and what we can do’.

This will be held at the St John’s training room on Molesworth Drive on August 9, at 5.30pm.
Entry is by donation for the general public, and $20 for relevant professionals, who will receive a certificate of attendance. To register, email

Where to turn for help

For youth suffering mental distress and wanting help, but who can’t access it through the private sector, there are free options available …

Guidance counsellor

All schools provide a free counselling service for students. Appointments and discussions are confidential.

Te Waka Youth

The hub in Wellsford, at 72 School Road, provides free support services for young people. For further info, contact Melanie at


Homebuilders offer free one to one counselling for teenagers with an experienced youth worker. To contact call 425 7048 or email


You can text or call 1737 to discuss any level of anxiety issue or talk through problems that may be overwhelming you. You will speak with a trained guidance counsellor and the service operates 24/7.

The Lowdown

Call The Lowdown on its free phone 0800 111 757 or text on 5626 to discuss why you might be feeling down and learn how to deal with anxiety or depression. You can also visit the website


SPARX is a self-help tool to deal with depression. It takes the format of a fantasy game where you use a character to learn methods of dealing with negative feelings. It is free to download from There is also a free helpline 0508 477 279 or you can text 3110. You will be dealt with by trained guidance counsellors. The lines are open 24/7.

Visit to get advice on depression and anxiety or learn how to help others with mental health issues. You can also free phone 0800 111 757 or text 4202. The line is open 24/7.

What’s Up

Free phone counselling for children age 5 to 18, call 0800 942 8787. Lines are open weekdays between noon and 11pm, and on weekends between 3pm and 11pm. An online chat option is available between 7pm and 10pm daily at


Free phone counselling for children aged up to 18 years old, call 0800 54 37 54. Lines are open 24/7. If you prefer talking to other youths about your issues, rather than adults, call between 4pm and 9pm to speak with a specially trained Year 12 or 13 student.


Free phone counselling on 0800 376 633 or text 234. You can also email or visit for advice on dealing with mental health issues. Youthline can also direct you to services or provide counselling face to face if further help is required.

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