Priscilla du Preez
Priscilla du Preez

Health worries, work worries, money worries, we are living through possibly the most volatile and uncertain period in a century. Even though New Zealand has been largely spared the devasting physical health and social turmoil witnessed in so many other countries, many are still fretting about employment, the economy and the future. 

Ocean Of Doubt

Dr Cynthia Ackrill, editor of Contentment magazine says that many are “living in a sea of stress hormones” and that our bodies are not designed for the daily flooding of the likes of cortisol, increasing the risk of physical as well as mental illnesses. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation Poll half of Americans say that coronavirus is harming their mental health, while the federal emergency hotline for those in emotional distress saw a 10-fold increase in calls in April. Models based on data gained following previous tragedies like terrorist attacks, natural disasters and economic downturns show a likely increase in suicides. A study of the Great Recession published by the National Center for Biotechnological Information found that for every percentage point increase in the unemployment rate, the suicide rate rose by around 1.6 percent


Mental Health America president, Paul Gionfriddo warns that action needs to be taken to prevent people “suffering from mental health issues for years to come”, sentiments echoed by Professor Tim Kendell, national clinical director for mental health for NHS England, who believes children especially are suffering, with emotional consequences that may last a decade.

First Aid For The Brain

Even pre-coronavirus, mental health disorders together were the third leading cause of health loss for Kiwis. 


“As mental and emotional distress increases as a result of self-isolation or the coming economic downturn, it’s important that we are all prepared to support our friends, family, neighbours and work colleagues,” says Matt Doocey, mental health spokesperson for the National Party. 


Doocy would like to see the introduction of free psychological first aid training to the public, as conducted by St John and the Red Cross—who describe the process as “initial  emotional and practical support to someone who has experienced a traumatic event”. It is effective for everything from personal incidents through to large-scale disasters.


“When the struggle is not visible, despite it having no less impact, a whole range of social, environmental and personal factors kick on that actively work against us wanting to reach out,” says Gabrielle Wildbore, national programme development manager for St John. “It’s the moment we most need to communicate, but the time we find it most difficult.”


The St John Mental Health First Aid course has been developed specifically for Kiwis using international and local resources and research, to provide “a basic understanding of the relationship between mental health and disorder”. It involves learning skills such as being able to identify the onset of mental anguish, understanding the relationship between mental health and wellness, and identifying strategies for managing a mental health crisis safely.


Wildbore says that its essential to “demystify the conversation around mental health and wellbeing” so that helping people in emotional distress is approached as openly as helping someone with an obvious physical injury. Mental Health First Aid gives everyday Kiwis the confidence and framework to have such conversations. 


New Zealand Red Cross recommends such training for anyone whose role involves supporting staff, workmates, community members and whānau. 


“This has,” says Doocey, “the potential to be an important first line of defence in addressing the growing mental and emotional distress in New Zealand as a result of the impacts of Covid-19.”