Cyclone Gabrielle's Long Tail: Mental Distress
Photo: Michal Farr

[As published in Nov/Dec BayBuzz magazine.]

On February 14, Cyclone Gabrielle struck Hawke’s Bay causing widespread devastation, and the death of eight people in the region, with the youngest being only 2. Post the cyclone Health Minister Ayesha Verrall announced a dedicated investment into mental health and wellbeing support, as part of the Budget 2023 Cyclone Recovery Package. 

“We know from other disasters in New Zealand and globally that mental health impacts emerge over time. The demand for various services will change over the next six to 12 months, and our response will evolve to ensure we’re responding,” Verrall said.

“It’s not just the immediate response that’s important, there are longer-term impacts on mental health, which is why we’re allocating a total of $10 million to provide additional support for community-led mental wellbeing initiatives.”

The New Zealand Disaster Fund by September 18 had committed more than $22 million to helping people and communities affected by Cyclone Gabrielle and other severe weather events earlier this year. The entire fund will be committed by the one-year anniversary of the cyclone next February.

One of the New Zealand Disaster Fund’s major priorities was supporting mental wellbeing after the cyclone and other severe weather events in early 2023 – more than $1.8 million in grants to organisations providing mental health services and running community-based mental health programmes in affected areas.

For example, a $53,000 grant from the Disaster Fund has helped the Heretaunga Women’s Centre provide free counselling services to women affected by the cyclone. This article examines the continuing mental health impact of the cyclone on our community, but it is in no way an exhaustive list of all impacted.

Long tail … symptoms persist

Wanda Douglas has worked as director of psychology for seven years for RNZAF, has spent more than 20 years in the NZ Army as a reservist psychologist, and is now helping Hawke’s Bay Fruit growers, winegrowers and Rural Trust in recovery post-cyclone.

“Before the cyclone I was approached by Hawke’s Bay Fruitgrowers to help when required, and then the cyclone hit.”

She said the immediate response post-cyclone was ‘critical incident stress response’.

“It started off with the typical fight, flight or freeze response. That was followed by ‘we are safe now, don’t have to be hyper-vigilant.

“The reality has hit more recently. Now it’s time to make decisions, and it’s now that it is getting really hard.”

Typically, Douglas, who is not a clinical psychologist, will conduct a psychometric test for signs of PTSD, stress, anxiety, suicidal ideation and then refer onto colleagues if required.

Most of the people she saw post-cyclone were following the psychosocial model of recovery.

“It starts with seeking out help, self-preservation, then it’s followed by the honeymoon phase, then the disillusionment phase which can take months to years after the event to recover from, and the reconstruct phase which is recovery, typically a year after the disaster.”

She said the reaction times varied, but approximately 10% showed some symptoms of stress, anxiety etc straight after the cyclone, about 45% three to four days after the cyclone, about 20% six weeks after the cyclone, and 20% would continue showing symptoms up to 12 months post-cyclone.

About 1% to 5% would be “profoundly impacted” and still experiencing symptoms after a year.

“The long-term mental impact most people will go through is grief – grief around the loss of a dream or a legacy. The intangible impact of what life would have looked like,” she said.

“There’s also a lot of guilt out there for orchardists, fruit-growers and even key decision makers who, perhaps, were not as badly impacted as others.”

The way to help for the long-term was to keep information channels open, ensuring people don’t get forgotten about, and caution around celebration, she said.

“It’s really raw, and really tough right now for some people. We need to recognise not everyone will be in the same boat or react the same way.

“We need to have courageous conversations so we can move through and look forward.”

“Outta sight, outta mind”

“It’s a case of outta sight, outta mind … you can’t see the paddocks of the sea fish are harvested from … the long-term psychological impact on fishers is far greater than that on farmers,” says fisher Darren Guard.

Guard knows a thing or two about the commercial fishing industry. He was introduced to fishing at a very young age due to his family being “in the business” – Guard Fishing. He worked his way up the business from crew to skipper to Managing Director, with 20 years in the family business.

Cyclone Gabrielle's Long Tail: Mental Distress

In 2005 Maritime New Zealand and the Seafood Industry Training Organisation (SITO) asked Guard to help them deliver FishSAFE, their safety training programme for commercial fishing vessels. 70 workshops were held for 1000 fishers, which led to a 51% reduction in new accident claims during the period of its lifecycle. While at Maritime New Zealand he studied and gained an Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) qualification among other studies.

He currently works as a general manager of operations at FirstMate, a charitable trust formed in 2021 to help support the wellbeing and mental health of those who work in the commercial seafood sector and their whānau.

He said the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle has been “catastrophic”.

“Anecdotally income opportunities have reduced by 70% to 80%, there’s only 30 to 40% of fish available because of debris – largely logs, machinery, silt from farm beds, etc on fishing grounds. If debris are in the way fishers can’t move, they are not mobile as it’s a significant hazard.

“A lot of equipment was lost for fishers, and the sea became largely unsafe to navigate because of debris.

“It’s unworkable. There are huge fields of debris.”

He said the immediate impact of the cyclone was both sea and shore-based.

“Fishing companies closed down on shore, and at sea fishers couldn’t unload product, rāhui had been put in place as well,” he said.

He said approximately 30 businesses were immediately impacted, and about 60 businesses at sea were feeling the sting post-cyclone. Ngāti Kahungunu’s fisheries business Takitimu Seafoods shut down in April after financial struggles due to Covid-19 and Cyclone Gabrielle, resulting in 33 people losing their jobs.

“The impact of the cyclone financially has been huge. I know some fishers who have left the region to survive. It’s a huge stressor for fishers because fishing is their livelihood.”

He said ‘land-based’ damage could be quantified and assessed but the damage to the seabed couldn’t be seen. “The psychological impact of the unknown and uncertainty around whether fishers will survive is far greater for fishermen than it is for farmers.”

Guard said that every single one of the main fishers fishing in the Gabrielle-hit area were impacted.

“They all had to modify their business to continue. The largest impact was felt on those who fish closer to shore, because a majority of those fishing grounds are largely unavailable. 

“A third of all fishers were severely impacted. The catastrophic impact of the cyclone will be inter-generational.”

He said the worst mental stressor for fishers was something which wouldn’t be known for at least five years.

“The silt from the cyclone has impacted the seabed, potentially disrupting the breeding cycle, if there’s no cycle, there’ll be no fish, if there’s no fish, there’ll be no fishermen.

“The long-term uncertainty is crippling. Fishers are waiting around to see when the axe will drop, or if it will.”

He said another stressor was the worry which accompanied getting blamed for lack of fish.

“Fishers are really worried they will get blamed for lack of fish stocks. There’s a general distrust of commercial fishermen and the public perception is a major stressor.”

He said moving regions was an option available, but only to some. “For a fisher to relocate, someone from the other region must relocate as well as it’s all based on quota. Most fishers are largely stuck in the region.”

He said government departments had to be battled with so fishers could get some help.

“It was fait accompli for growers, we have had to fight for it. The impacts of the cyclone are far greater on fishers, supports should be greater as well.”

FirstMate adverse events navigator Vicky Hunt concurred. “The seabed is hidden, and we are not yet aware of how much damage has been done to fishing grounds.

“Fishers have had to go out further afield than they did previously, and those who would normally fish for the day, now have to go away from their families for two to three days.

“It takes a huge mental toll and it’s not something which will go away overnight. Right now, they don’t know whether fishing will still be there … we need to keep the door open to support them.”

Touching hundreds of farmers

East Coast Rural Support Trust Area Coordinator Jonathan Bell said it was hard to give a “definitive number” in terms of farmers they supported

“We support sheep & beef, dairying, cropping, vegetable growers, horticulturists and viticulturists. I would be reluctant to put a number on it, but over 4,000 wouldn’t be an unreasonable number,” Bell said.

“We have touched base with hundreds of farmers since the cyclone, some a very light touch – at a community meeting as an example. The number we are dealing with as clients is confidential, and those seeking mental wellbeing health, or counselling, would be less than 180.

He said every situation was different and there wasn’t an emerging theme as such in terms of the mental health impact of the cyclone on farmers.

“Farmers have issues which cause stress which relate to farm infrastructure damage (fences, tracks, culverts, dams), access into and out of their farms (fragile roads and bridges), land categorisation, increasing interest rates, a low dairy payout forecast and falling lamb schedules all impact on farmers and increase stress levels.”

The Rural Support Trust and other organisations are helping farmers in a variety of ways.

“Such things as community events to encourage connectivity (one of the five ways to wellbeing), information workshops/meetings which provide technical information, assistance with completion of applications for funding or sediment removal from properties, wellness events etc,” Bell said.

“All these promote the importance of keeping safe, looking after yourself and give an opportunity to connect and identify those that are struggling, or give those that are struggling the contacts for those that can help, e.g. Rural Support Trust.”

Women struggling to cope

Jenny Whitehead has been working as a counsellor at the Heretaunga Women’s Centre since October 2020.

She said, “Women who were managing, just, before Cyclone Gabrielle, are no longer coping.”

Since Cyclone Gabrielle there’s been a groundswell of demand for counselling services at HWC with an increase in numbers and complexity of issues women are presenting with.

“There’s also been a definite increase in women reporting physical, emotional and psychological abuse.”

She didn’t foresee the demand decreasing in the near future. “I expect the number of women coming to us to seek counselling services to keep rising in the next few months.”

She said the rising cost of living didn’t help because, for some women, it meant they were without accommodation if they decided to leave the perpetrator.

“People say ‘why don’t you leave’ but it’s not as simple as that. It’s complex, for some women it’s about where they would go if they left, how they would cope alone.” 

Drug and alcohol issues

Whatever It Takes Trust (WITT) general manager Phil Ross said referrals to WITT had increased; however minimally so far for mental health issues relating specifically to the cyclone.

“What we did experience post-Covid lockdowns was that there was a lag of 9 to 18 months before people presented with mental health and anxiety issues relating to those events,” Ross said.

“This may indicate that there will be further people seeking help over the coming year or years.

“We have had some staff involved in community groups, particularly rural groups providing support to those impacted by the cyclone. This will be an ongoing issue. Anecdotally there has been an increase in people seeking help with drug and alcohol issues which impacts on mental health and family harm.”

WITT supports adults generally from 20 to 70 plus years old. It is both a Mental Health & Addiction Support Service and a Community Housing Provider.

“Part of our Housing Services covers the homeless through the Housing First initiative and also through our Outreach Centre in Clive Square,” Ross said.

“This is where we are seeing the biggest impact. Our Outreach Centre caters for rough sleepers and other homeless whānau and has seen numbers at times double of what we experienced pre-cyclone – sometimes up to 50 people per day dropping in.”

He said pre-cyclone the daily numbers varied from 15 to 25, and post-cyclone they have been 25 to 50 per day.

“They don’t all stay all day, but call in. Over the cyclone we set up a night shelter for 15 whānau (5 wāhine and 10 tāne) for a week to provide shelter, kai and also provided assistance seeking support from Civil Defence centres, MSD etc.”

Ross said the Trust had “great support” from the community and organisations providing generators, barbecues, gas, fuel and lots of food, especially from supermarkets and restaurants.

“There have been many impacts from the cyclone, including loss of jobs. And combined with increasing cost of living those of our communities on lower incomes and the vulnerable have difficulty in making ends meet.

“The communities of Hawke’s Bay provided great support post-cyclone, however this needs to continue for the foreseeable future.”

Steady number of referrals

Health Hawke’s Bay Mental Health Service Lead Samara Kelly said since Cyclone Gabrielle the PHO remained steady in the number of referrals they had been receiving and presentations across both IPMHAs (integrated primary mental health and addictions) and Talking Based Therapy referrals.

The following services are offered. Health Improvement Practitioners (HIPS) and Health Coaches (HC), part of the integrated primary mental health and addictions); and Talking Based Therapy.

HIPS are a clinical work force who are able to see patients experiencing stressors and wellbeing challenges within allocated general practices. HIPs help patients develop skills to make positive behavioural changes in their wellbeing. This includes managing stress, thoughts, feelings and behaviours, helping with sleep, alcohol and drug problems. They provide support to all ages including children, youth and their whānau who may have worries or have behavioural concerns.

Health Coaches (HCs) work alongside Health Improvement Practitioners and the general practice teams. Health Coaches come from a range of health and well-being backgrounds and empower people to take control of their health and wellbeing by developing realistic goals and encouraging good management of various health issues that the patient wants to address.

Talking Based Therapy supports patients experiencing mild to moderate mental health distress via 4 free sessions (one package of care) of talking therapies with a skilled clinician. Talking Based Therapists are based in locations throughout Napier and Hastings with providers in CHB and Wairoa.

Referral to these services is via General Practice (so the patient must be registered in one); the services are free.

Cyclone Gabrielle ACC claims 

Cyclone related ACC claims cost $1,086,728 between February 12 to August 14.

ACC’s deputy chief executive of service delivery Amanda Malu said ACC undertook a range of short-term initiatives for clients impacted by the cyclone in the Northland, Hawke’s Bay and Tairāwhiti regions, accepting a total of 82 mental injury claims between the period of February 12 and August 14.

ACC can provide mental injury cover if someone suffers a mental injury as a result of a physical injury, or if they require mental health support as the result of witnessing a traumatic event while working (e.g. emergency first responders).

The waiting time to see a psychologist or psychiatrist has depended on geographical location. On average, it varied between 4-6 weeks or 6-8 weeks as some areas have less psychologists or psychiatrists available or areas of high demand.

Malu said ACC was there to help whānau and families faced with the loss of loved ones from Cyclone Gabrielle. “We can help with funeral or memorial costs, one-off payments and loss of income,” she said. “An application can be made whenever the whānau feel comfortable, there’s no time limit.”

The ways in which ACC can provide support are:

Funeral grant: a one-off payment of up to $7,024.80 towards funeral and memorial costs.

Survivor’s grant: one-off payment of $7,531.49 to the deceased’s spouse or partner, and $3,765.76 to each child under 18 or other dependants.

Childcare: If the deceased had children, ACC can provide weekly payments to help with childcare for children under the age of 14.

Loss of income: If the deceased was earning an income when they died, ACC can pay up to 80% of the deceased’s earnings. This is divided between the partner, children and other dependants.

Fuel your Stoke

Fuel your Stoke Tour was a series of six free concerts to raise spirits across some of the rural communities hit the hardest by Cyclone Gabrielle.

The concerts were aimed at all ages, and offered live performances from local artists, food, activities and mental health resources and professionals present to engage with attendees.

Cyclone Gabrielle's Long Tail: Mental Distress
Jack Jensen and mom Mandy Photo Michal Farr

Fuel your Stoke Tour founder Jack Jensen said the idea of a tour was sparked pre-cyclone.

“Me and my right-hand man Warren Brown, who lost his son 14 years ago, connected after my closest friend took his life in 2020.

“We were losing good people to suicide and the idea of a tour came about.”

But then Cyclone Gabrielle struck. “We knuckled in and were all hands on deck after that.” 

Post the cyclone Jack and his partner Micki established the ‘Hawke’s Bay Helping’ website to assist people across the Bay and connect volunteers to those who needed help.

Once the voluntary work slowed, he recognised the region was facing a mental health crisis.

“We had to move fast, so we went back to people and property owners that lost everything and asked what they needed most.

“The answer was space, space to disconnect from all the bad stuff going on and that’s when the concept for the Fuel Your Stoke Tour came about.

“We wanted to make it free so there was no excuse not to turn up.

He said it was a tour that was needed more than ever. “We ripped into it and it was great to see the froth, and love and stokes it brought people … it was also humbling to see it bring so many people together.

“It took some weight off the shoulders of people who had been through hell and back.”

He said approximately 1,500 people had “rolled through”.

“We wanted to let these people know that we were not allowing them to fall through the cracks … we worked on the principle of one person, one life, at a time, which would create a ripple effect.” 

Jo* on her own

Jo found being on her own after the cyclone “quite challenging and scary…I needed to talk to someone.”

It was a very stressful time – end of a 20-year marriage. Dealing with lawyers, I felt I was doing OK, but could feel that I might not be if I didn’t get some counselling.

“Found being on my own after the cyclone and flood quite challenging and scary. Felt that driving to work when roads finally opened and seeing the devastation made me cry on the way. I was feeling vulnerable and uncertain about the future.”

She decided to approach Heretaunga Women’s Centre to undertake counselling. “It made me look back and think about things. I found that the most helpful,” Jo said.

“I could understand more about what I had gone through and what was happening for me now and felt it was OK to look back. It wasn’t dwelling on it or getting stuck but helped with the moving on and making plans bit.”

“I needed to talk to someone … I think if I hadn’t done the counselling I wouldn’t feel as whole as I do now or as able to feel positive and make future plans that actually have meaning.”(*Name has been changed to protect identity)

Suffering from depression or stress, or know someone who is? Where to get help:
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234

BayBuzz health reporting is supported in part by Royston Hospital.


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