EMPATHY FOR CALLOUTS: Whakatane St John station manager Michelle Sattler has seen a significant increase in callouts over the past year. Photo Troy Baker D9565-09

MORE people suffering mental health crises are calling on St John for assistance, according to new data from the  ambulance service.

Eastern Bay ambulance officers have experienced a significant increase in their workload with mental health call-outs nearly four times the national average.

Recent statistics released by St John show a 76 percent increase in psychiatric or suicide related call-outs in the Eastern Bay, rising from 46 incidents in 2018 to 81 in 2019.

The reason for this increase is unclear, according to St John Eastern Bay territory manager Richard Waterson.

However, he said it did indicate a rise in individuals experiencing a mental health crisis.

“The growing emergency ambulance workload is indicative of population growth, an aging population and more complex health issues and it is likely that the need for ambulance services will continue to rise,” Mr Waterson said.

In 2019 St John responded to 6212 emergency calls in the Eastern Bay, up from 5207 in 2018.

Christine Macfarlane, president of the New Zealand Association of Counsellors, said the increase could be due to the reduction of community health access not only in the Eastern Bay, but nationally.

“Even though we like to think the stigma has been reduced there is still stigma around calling a mental health service.

“Especially if people have been knocked back before or think ‘I’m not as bad as that, I’m not that high risk’.”

She said if a patient was at risk of self-harm or suicide, mental health teams were unable to enter the property and needed to be assisted by police. This could deter patients and steer them towards calling St John for assistance.

“A lot of the time with mental health services if there is concern or risk the police have to come too, the mental health team can’t go into the house if they aren’t invited.

“That can create some hesitation with people saying that they don’t want the police there,” Ms Macfarlane said.

The statistics show numbers from Whakatane, Kawerau, Opotiki, Te Kaha and Waihau Bay, with all St John staff working hard to meet the continual increase.

St John Whakatane station manager Michelle Sattler said being a part of a trusted organisation did have a lot to do with why they might be the first port of call for Eastern Bay residents.

“I do believe as the most trusted organisation that is part of it; they identify we’re there to help.

“The system [mental health system] itself is quite difficult to get into and it has changed quite a bit. You can’t just walk up to the ward anymore, which they used to be able to do historically.

“So, where do they go? What they do is dial 111 and we send an ambulance out there,” Mrs Sattler said.

Ms Macfarlane acknowledged the tragedy of Whakaari/White Island and said sometimes even if people were not directly affected by the tragedy, it could take a toll on the community as a whole.

“What happens when tragedy and trauma happens, is it increases everybody’s stress levels and anxiety levels and their coping skills are reduced,” Ms Macfarlane said.

Mr Waterson said St John in the Eastern Bay was working hard to meet the increase in demand, however, if a patient’s condition was not critical there might be a delay in ambulance response.

St John is in year three of a four-year project to double crew all ambulances to improve outcomes for patients and safety of ambulance officers with crew numbers doubling in the past three years.

Mrs Sattler said often it was a family member that initiated the call to St John because they were unsure how to approach a mental health crisis of a loved one.

“Many people who have family members that been seen by the crisis team and aren’t admitted to a ward call us because they just can’t cope at home. We step in as health professionals and pass our opinions onto another health professional about what we’ve seen.

“Every single job we go to, we have to have the empathy and the sympathy. I’d like to think that our staff consider, ‘that could be us’ – there’s not a single person alive that can’t guarantee they’re not going to have a mental health issue next week.

“We see it as this person is in crisis today and let’s do whatever we need to do to assist them to get them the help they require.”