‘Obliged to help’: David Gyngell sounds alarm over mental health crisis in Northern Rivers

By Heath Gilmore and Catherine Naylor

Outdoor counselling sessions led by Human Nature therapist Heidi Vial.Credit:Natalie Grono

David Gyngell wants to raise the alarm: there’s a mental health calamity going on around him.

The 2022 floods that devastated the Northern Rivers region left a mark on all residents, including Gyngell, the Byron Bay-based former Nine chief executive.

Water levels dropped to reveal the massive clean-up needed after severe flooding in Lismore.Credit:Elise Derwin

“I come from a truly privileged background, one that I am not ashamed of,” he said. “Helping people clean out their homes in Lismore, it was eye-opening. If you weren’t humbled by that experience, you are a wanker.”

At the height of last year’s disaster, Gyngell called Dominic Perrottet to draw the NSW premier’s attention to the tardiness of the government’s response. Later, he pushed the three commercial television networks into holding a joint telethon, which raised $27 million. Now, he wants to focus attention on the mental health crisis besetting the region’s young after the floods.

“I don’t want to swan through life and lose sight of what’s happening in our community,” he said. “Everyone is obliged to help.”

For some children and young people, the initial impact of the record-breaking disaster is now metastasising into a black hole of despair: homelessness or insecure housing, escalating alcohol or drug use, family breakdowns and sundry human frailties are dragging them into places that no-one should occupy.

A soon-to-be-published Resilience Survey has found levels of depression and anxiety symptoms are now higher among Northern Rivers children and young people than the national average of earlier survey participants for some student groups.

Outdoor counselling sessions led by Human Nature therapist Heidi Vial.Credit:Natalie Grono

Conducted almost six months after the February 2022 disaster, the survey was taken by 6611 school students, nearly 13 per cent of all young people aged between five and 19 in the region.

It found that almost one in three Northern Rivers primary students and more than one in three secondary students were at risk of depression and anxiety.

More than 40 per cent of primary students were at risk of trauma-related stress. For secondary students, it was almost 20 per cent.

Healthy North Coast, a not-for profit organisation delivering the Australian Government’s Primary Health Network program in the region, commissioned the research as the first step in its Resilient Kids initiative, funded by a $10 million grant from the National Emergency Management Agency.

Healthy North Coast chief executive Monika Wheeler said the survey established a baseline that could help to measure the mental health and well-being of young people in the Northern Rivers over time.

Inundated, isolated, in despair: Floodwaters around Lismore’s St Carthage’s Cathedral and Trinity Catholic College.Credit:Getty

She said that young people reported generally feeling supported and connected within their schools and communities. However, the survey also highlighted areas to focus on in future.

“The Resilient Kids initiative will use local insights to design tailored mental health and well-being supports,” she said.

“We know that successful recovery is based on understanding community context and is not a one-off event.

“It’s multi-year, multi-layered, and our approach to supporting our young people might change over time as we see how they respond.”

Tens of millions of federal and state dollars has been promised for mental health and well-being programs in the region’s schools and wider community.

Safe haven hubs have opened across the region to provide free mental health support. Drop-ins are encouraged, and there is no need for referrals or appointments. For young people, dedicated online and phone services also are available.

The difficulty is reaching those who won’t or can’t use these services.

Children’s charities Unicef Australia and Royal Far West are rolling out a $4.5 million support program covering 30 state primary schools and preschools in the Northern Rivers and south-east Queensland.

Social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists and occupational therapists will enter school communities to help staff address learning delays in children.

Unicef Australia chief advocate for children Nicole Breeze said thousands of children will need intensive support, as the effects of the disaster can potentially remain hidden for years.

“Our first engagement in this space was after the Black Summer bushfires,” she said. “With children the impact can stay hidden, it can take a year or two, sometimes three. The good news is that with the right support, at the right time, they can bounce back.”

Last April, the plight of Northern Rivers children garnered international attention when Prince William spoke online with the principal of St Joseph’s Primary School Woodburn, Jeanette Wilkins, who told him the community had lost its school and “everything in it” and the mental health of the community had taken a major blow.

The school was under water for eight days.

“We’re two months down the track and nothing has changed, those 34 families are still displaced, so there’s no certainty for those children,” she told the prince.

“For us, the most important thing was to make contact with our families and our children, and as fast as possible to set up a school somewhere just to get the children back to some form of normality and start dealing with their trauma.”

At Christmas, 29 families of students and staff at St Joseph’s (more than half the students) were still living in some form of temporary housing such as a caravan, shed, shipping container or the shell of their flood-stripped home.

Ten Catholic schools in the Lismore diocese were directly affected by the floods, including St Joseph’s. Three schools are inaccessible, with 1250 students being taught in temporary facilities.

Morning tea and lunch are provided in some schools as are new school uniforms and shoes to help address absenteeism. A team of 30 counsellors is working in 23 schools, and community services provider Social Futures is operating in seven of the flood-hit schools to assist families in gaining to access additional mental health social and financial support.

Larissa Polak, principal at Lismore South Public SchoolCredit:Brook Mitchell

Thirty-seven state facilities suffered significant damage in the disaster. Five schools are still operating away from their original site.

At Lismore South Public School, principal Larissa Polak said student and staff well-being was at the heart of all classroom activity this year.

The school returned home – almost – late last year. Portable classrooms have been erected on an oval across the road from the flood ravaged main building.

All staff are trained in trauma-informed practice. Students and staff have access to free and confidential face to face counselling.

“I think parents were happy that we were back in the neighbourhood. It was a layer of healing,” Polak told the Herald in February.

“We started celebrating small milestones: the inside toilet has been installed, the electricity is back on, I’ve got a bedroom again, I’m out of a tent.”

Gyngell became interested in young people’s mental health in his community after hearing a speech by Human Nature Adventure Therapy founder Andy Hamilton, who has led a respected, nature-based mental health support initiative since 2015.

Outdoor counselling session led by Human Nature therapeutic mentor Sally McAdam, program manager Jen Parke and founder and therapeutic lead Andy Hamilton in Ballina. Credit:Natalie Grono

Sixty teenagers are receiving intensive therapy at Human Nature. Hamilton said the number of referrals since the flood had become “ridiculous”.

“We take only the most at-risk young people,” Hamilton said, “the ones who won’t or can’t deal with any conventional clinical therapy.

“It’s not just taking them out into nature because it makes them feel good, we have trained and registered mental health professionals essentially giving them the support in an environment where the clients are emotionally and psychologically comfortable for us to work with them.

“We are working at the pointy end. Often there is nothing else for them.

”For the last five years young people in this area have dealt with a 2017 flood, then bushfires, two years of COVID lockdowns and then the biggest flood on record,” Hamilton said.

“Now it’s pushing some over the edge.”

If you need immediate support: 24hr Mental Health Line — 1800 011 511; Lifeline — 13 11 44; Beyond Blue — 1300 224 636; For children under 12 years: 24/7 Kids Helpline — 1800 551 800

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