Earthquake relief and wellbeing in Christchurch
When the shaking stops - safeguarding a community’s wellbeing after a disaster
by Susie Hill
Suicide prevention is often seen as the ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’, when in fact promoting mental health and wellbeing and preventing mental health problems is goal number one in the Ministry of Health’s Suicide Prevention Strategy and Action Plan.
Exposure to trauma, stressful or negative life events and social factors such as isolation, lack of support are all risk factors for suicide.
Vulnerability is a defining word that comes to mind when thinking of the devastating series of earthquakes that have hit Christchurch, but agencies, communities and everyday folk on the ground are doing their bit to promote mental health and wellbeing in their communities and help people through tough times.
We speak to Freedom Preston-Clark from the Mental Health Foundation’s southern regional office, and Carol Hippolite from Nelson’s Whakatu Marae about their roles at this time of crisis for the people of Christchurch.
Christchurch staff had to flee
Christchurch-based Mental Health Foundation staff had to flee their inner city office and run out into the chaos of Latimer Square on the day of the second major earthquake on 22 February 2011.
Their manager Freedom Preston-Clark was home at the time, returning there after a period of leave. She is incredibly grateful that no one was hurt – their office building and all others around it are now signalled for demolition; their homes and neighbourhoods in disarray. So it is no small feat that the entire team is now meeting once a week to get on with ‘business as usual’.
Mental health promoters get involved
Suicide prevention requires a collaborative approach across multiple sectors, and Freedom says her team has never been more practically involved with organisations than they are right now. Staff are working with the New Brighton Project, Project Lyttleton, Volcano Radio and Women’s Refuge.
Such things are now the norm: “These things are not extraordinary, they have become ordinary. Our administrator was feeling lost so, off her own bat, she went to the Red Cross and did data registering.”
She says there are no barriers to assisting others and people aren’t scared to ask for or offer help. One of her ways to contributing to the local community is meeting her team at places like The Loons – a bar that's just reopened as a cafe during the day and a bar at night.
Slicing through usual barriers
For those people who need help with their mental health, there are options open to them. Freedom says the usual red tape has been cut through like never before. The Ministry of Youth Development has provided money. Mental health organisations have been working together, such as the Bipolar Trust, Anxiety Support and the Psychiatric Consumers Trust, which was given a green sticker so it could be used as a drop-in centre.
A regular earthquake email from Canterbury DHB keeps Freedom’s team up to date with meetings, services and support groups that are still open, have closed or moved.
Healing and wellbeing post earthquake: marae style
One marae in Nelson didn’t wait to work out exactly how to help the people of Christchurch following the devastating quake - it just swung into action and put out a message that it was open to earthquake evacuees.
“When we got the news, we went through the marae committee and others, like Te Puni Kokiri and the Maori Party, to see if we could open up. We were able to have a meeting with different agencies in town and ask if there was any support,” says Carol Hippolite, health promoter at Whakatu Marae.
As a result they got help from Work and Income, the IRD, the local PHO and DHB, the Red Cross, and the community at large.
“The first group of families arrived on Friday night and we set them up in the marae with bedding and kai, and we got the budget to shop [for other essentials].
“We asked for any offerings and got blankets, food, cots, prams, clothing, towels, pillows, soap and toiletries… it was fantastic.”
The marae and community’s response showed how effective collaboration in the safeguarding of wellbeing can be. The community really rallied around and everything was provided free.
“Some people dropping off food were counsellors so they stopped to talk to people,” Carol says.
The marae temporarily took in 45 whanau, Maori and non-Maori. People on the marae worked creatively to connect agencies with the evacuees: they allowed support workers to base themselves at the marae, and provided them with food and drinks so everyone could get through.
The marae had its own whanau ora services and had a doctor come in to check people and provide medicines.
“There are six iwi affiliated to our marae, and we had community support. We forfeited some money ourselves to kick start things, but we did ok in the end.”
Carol says the entire experience was a real eye-opener for the marae and, if such a thing ever happened again, they feel they have learnt enough to be able to set things in place before people arrive.
Connecting with local people
Back in Christchurch, there has been a huge loss in terms of friends and colleagues moving out of the city and, as a result, new connections are being forged.
Freedom’s colleague Ciaran Fox is working with Volcano Radio in Lyttleton (pictutred above) - he can’t get through the tunnel easily because the control station has been damaged, so he stays there and responds to his community with the help of the station and business sponsorship.
He is also doing 15 minute presentations through Green Prescription areas, promoting practical and proven ways Cantabrians can support their own wellbeing and the world around them.
Freedom and her team are saturating the city with a series of five posters featuring these messages, based on the Winning Ways To Wellbeing campaign used for Mental Health Awareness Week in 2009.
The messages are:
- CONNECT – Talk and listen, be there, feel connected
- GIVE – Your time, your words, your presence
- TAKE NOTICE – Remember the simple things that give you joy
- KEEP LEARNING – Embrace new experiences, see opportunities, surprise yourself
- BE ACTIVE – Do what you can, enjoy what you do, move your mood
“These messages are just as important as other public health messages, like boiling your water,” Freedom says. “Mental health needs to be on an equal footing with physical health – that combination is what keeps us all going.”
She says there is a lot being done by other organisations also to increase social cohesion in Christchurch, such as Gap Filler, Living Streets Aotearoa, the UC Student Volunteer Army, and art projects like A Good Yarn.
Some activities wouldn’t necessarily be seen as promotion of mental health and wellbeing, but in fact they contribute to that goal by their very nature.
People with experience of mental illness the real experts
People with experience of mental illness are coping better than others during this time, Freedom believes, because they have learnt how to manage anxiety, know their triggers and realise they don’t have to freak out.
“Some people with experience of mental illness can operate really well under this sort of pressure and it’s fantastic. It’s good for them to see that they can be setting the example – they are the experts on this stuff!”