Mental health advice and support after cyclone

Issue: Volume 102, Number 3

Posted: 8 March 2023
Reference #: 1HAZp7

Traumatic weather events like Cyclone Gabrielle can have a significant impact on the mental wellbeing of students in affected areas. With parts of Auckland still recovering from flooding and Cyclone Gabrielle destroying homes and livelihoods, as well as taking a tragic human toll, schools are in a unique position to provide support for their students and whānau.

Cyclone Gabrielle.

Cyclone Gabrielle.

While educators play a key role in supporting communities following traumatic events, principals, teachers and other staff have also been exposed to devastation in Auckland, Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, Bay of Plenty, Coromandel and Northland and should remember to “put on their own oxygen masks first”, says psychologist, Dr Mary Miller.  

In a webinar Navigating the mental wellbeing impacts of flooding: strategies for screening and managing issues, developed after the Auckland floods, Mary explains that everybody has been affected by the disasters and while it may not come naturally, school staff should look after themselves and their families first, as this will resource them to be able to also offer support to students – otherwise, they could risk burnout.  

Diverse reactions 

The level and duration of flooding impacts levels of distress and existing mental health conditions can be exacerbated. Mary explains that the emotional and social impact of natural disasters such as floods remains long after the water recedes. While it’s normal to have a strong emotional response, some may develop PTSD, anxiety and depression with symptoms continuing for anything from six months to three years.  

There can be a diverse range of reactions and symptoms; younger children becoming very quiet and ‘good’, or regressing to younger behaviours and angry outbursts. Teenagers can show their anxiety through withdrawal and irritability. They are likely to turn to social media and their peers for support, but they still need adult role models to help them process their experience.  

Many tamariki and rangatahi already experience eco-anxiety and are worried about the environment and climate change and climate-related natural disasters are likely to intensify these concerns.  

Range of responses  

The Kids’ Health website says that when children have faced a traumatic event, they may experience a number of emotional and behavioural responses including:  

  • engaging in repetitive play that re-enacts the trauma  
  • having dreams or nightmares about the event, or about themselves or significant others being in danger  
  • becoming preoccupied with other traumatic events  
  • becoming very distressed when faced with reminders about the event  
  • withdrawing from people and wanting to be alone  
  • losing interest in activities that they usually enjoy  
  • being alert, tense, and on-edge  
  • having difficulties sleeping  
  • experiencing aches and pains – especially stomach aches and headaches  
  • having difficulty concentrating and paying attention  
  • being clingy and overly dependent on others  
  • becoming distressed or fearful if separated from loved ones  
  • behaving younger, or being generally irritable and acting out  
  • being angry and verbally or physically aggressive  
  • having difficulty seeing any future for themselves or loved ones.  

Screening platform supports mental health  

The GoodSpace Schools digital screening platform was developed to enable schools to take a proactive and cost-efficient approach to student wellbeing. It was piloted in 2021 and in 2022, more than 10,000 students at 89 schools were screened to assess their mental wellbeing.  

The initiative was set up by Dr Stuart Jenkins, Dr Subha Rajanaidu, Kate Rhind and Sanjeewa Samaraweera, who all shared a concern about mental health in young people and youth suicide rates. They offer their experience and expertise to the initiative in their own time.  

“I’ve come to it because I felt that there could be more effective and equitable ways of coordinating school wellbeing resources,” explains Subha.  

“Most schools were set up either reactively, where they need a student to be identified by a staff member or for the student to be confident enough to reach out for help, or they have a main focus on just one year group when the risk was all encompassing across year groups.”  

Whole school approach 

It’s a tiered whole of school approach. Students complete a survey in real time and any issues of concern are immediately prioritised by school welfare or pastoral teams.  

“We ask a range of questions about things that are drivers of poor mental health. It’s all immediately prioritised so staff can see the students who have answered ‘yes’ to any safeguarding question.”  

The students are told what might happen beforehand. A school’s welfare or pastoral team will then reach out to any students with potential safeguarding risks within 48 hours.  

“Schools say they found on average 50 percent more students than they were aware of who were carrying potential safeguarding risks; that is anything that needs to be responded to in an immediate fashion from a safety point of view. It could be internal factors such as suicidal ideation or external factors like domestic violence or sexual harm situations,” explains Subha.  

Cyclone Gabrielle.

Cyclone Gabrielle.

Stability and structure important  

Subha says that a short-term immediate response to the current post-flood and cyclone disaster to create a sense of stability and structure, with as much parental and community support as possible, will set the stage for the future impacts on mental health.  

Nevertheless, some students may experience continued distress, with those students with existing mental health concerns having a higher immediate and ongoing risk.  

“I think that GoodSpace can help schools identify students who are in need of psychosocial help following a major incident, however I wouldn’t want schools to immediately respond with this tool.  

“Most students who are in distress currently are experiencing an appropriate response to significant trauma and need to be wrapped with care and support from their whānau and community. The GoodSpace Schools platform could be part of a toolkit to help schools identify students that may need additional support in the future,” says Subha.  

In a blog Supporting student wellbeing after widespread floods, GoodSpace suggests the following key steps schools can take to help support their students:  

  • Provide a coordinated and comprehensive response in the aftermath of a disaster.  
  • Provide clear, accurate information about resources and services available to students and families.  
  • Create a supportive environment where students feel safe and able to express their feelings.  
  • Provide practical assistance to students and whānau affected by the disaster.  
  • Promote resilience in the aftermath by teaching students coping skills and providing opportunities for them to become involved in community activities.  
  • Provide ongoing support for those affected including counselling and mental health services as well as support as students return to their normal routines.
Cyclone Gabrielle.

Cyclone Gabrielle.

Resources and information

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 1:47 pm, 8 March 2023

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