The principal of a Wellington school that has students with anger management problems and others that have lost loved ones to suicide says schools need more autonomy to improve mental wellbeing.

Porirua College principal Ragne Maxwell with last year’s prefects. Photo/Supplied

In 2012 the government launched the Youth Mental Health Project which is made up of 26 initiatives, many rolled out in schools, to improve the mental health and wellbeing of young people.

The project was created as an investment of about $64 million over four years in response to a report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Improving the Transition: Reducing Social and Psychological Morbidity During Adolescence, which raised concerns about mental health issues for young people aged 12-19.

The project was led by the Ministry of Health which worked with the ministries of education, social development and Te Puni Kōkiri to implement the initiatives.

These included increasing school-based health services, increasing youth workers in low decile schools, implementing the internet-based e-therapy tool SPARX and expanding PB4L School-Wide to all schools wanting to be involved.

PB4L is a school-based approach aimed at teaching positive behaviour and developing a social culture that supports learning.

Porirua College principal Ragne Maxwell said anything created to improve the lives of young people is positive and many of the initiatives have been successful but to really make a difference funding needs to go directly to schools to choose the programmes that work for them rather than into specific initiatives which may not suit every situation.

Initiatives such as PB4L were useful to begin with but the school has now adapted it to better fit the students’ needs, she said.

“It’s definitely helpful to have programmes developed.”

For a school like Porirua College PB4L helped them make positive changes within the school but was not appropriate to continue as first implemented.

A restorative approach worked better to maintain a positive culture, she said.

“[PB4L] was part of a big change in behaviour which was highly successful, a good way of changing behaviour.

“We adapted it into what worked for us.

“Any programme that comes in is just one way of doing things, we should never slavishly follow a programme.”

There are other youth mental wellness programmes that the school would like to follow but they are not funded, Maxwell said.

“We think the whole model is wrong, we think schools should get the money then purchase the programmes we need.

“We’re quite capable of assessing our own needs. Schools know what works in their own community.”

There is also a lack of communication between the Ministry of Education, organisations who provide programmes and schools.

“We have students with anger management problems who may end up killing people.

“They hit a person and it’s just luck that nobody has died yet, they are huge and don’t know their own strength.

“They are desperate.”

The school found it difficult to find a funded anger management programme for students due to the lack of communication, she said.

Although many of the initiatives in the Youth Mental Health Project have merit, the right services are not always available when they are needed.

Last year the Porirua community lost a number of loved ones to suicide including three that had connections to students at Porirua College, Maxwell said.

Secondary schools in the area worked together with the district health board to get a mobile counselling service come to each school during term 4.

“I think people are alive now who wouldn’t be here because of that service but we had to campaign for it, the schools had to fight for it. It was not easy.

“That stuff should be coming to us automatically.”

Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand chief executive Shaun Robinson said the Youth Mental Health Project needed to be more cohesive to make a difference to the lives of adolescents in New Zealand.

“There’s a patchwork of initiatives, some are working.”

One initiative that was very positive was SPARX which is a self-help e-therapy tool designed to give young people the skills needed to combat depression and anxiety within a game format.

“That’s proven to be really effective.”

Robinson said he hoped the current Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry would come up with  a comprehensive way to address young people’s needs.

The general approach recommended in the inquiry should work well for young people in terms of making services available early on, having a diverse range of programmes and having input from people who have had personal experience with services, Robinson said.

“It’s really about making wellbeing a focus rather than a mental illness focus.”

A method that works well for students is focusing on the wellbeing of all not just those who already have mental health issues, he said.

“Rather than looking for the people with the problems and fixing them a better approach would be promoting wellness and behaviours that lift everyone’s mental health and wellbeing.

“This works through the problem of stigma as no one wants to be seen going to the school counsellor, it feels awkward.”

Ministry of Education deputy secretary of sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said it’s really important that any models or programmes offered in schools have a strong evidence-base, are supported by mental health experts and have links to specialist mental health services.

“We know that mental health and wellbeing is a priority for our young people, schools and communities.

“We also know there’s a need for all agencies to work together to prevent and promote awareness of mental health issues, as the link between student wellbeing and achievement becomes increasingly clear.”

The Ministry of Health plays a lead role in making sure only evidence-based programmes and approaches to mental health issues are offered in schools. However it is equally important these are implemented in a way that meets the needs of the school and community, she said.

“There is a lot of collaborative work underway between the education and health sectors to ensure children and young people have the support they need to succeed.

“This includes funding 80 health professionals to work with Year 1 to 8 students in Canterbury and Kaikōura through the Mana Ake – Stronger for Tomorrow initiative.”

The Mana Ake initiative is funded by the Ministry of Health through the Canterbury District Health Board.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson said the ministry is committed to improving the mental health and wellbeing of young people.

More information on the Youth Mental Health Project and initiatives can be found at


If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:

LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234

There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.

Banner Image: Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand chief executive Shaun Robinson. Photo/Supplied


  1. Shaun Robinson of the Mental Health Foundation states “It’s really about making well-being a focus rather than mental illness a focus” – and he thinks “a better approach would be promoting wellness and behaviours that lift everyone’s mental health and well-being”.

    All well and good – but we cannot, of course, in any way stop trying to help the pupils who have recognised mental health problems, perhaps even accepted diagnoses of illnesses. “It feels awkward ………………to be seen going to the school counsellor”, states Robinson. Well perhaps – but must we therefore insist that all pupils, even the possibly (my guesstimate) 95% mentally well-adjusted and perfectly well-functioning youngsters, get to go to the counsellor for equally long consultations to avoid stigmatising the few??

    Counselling children in effect means psychotherapy of children – that is very tricky business which needs to be done by qualified psychologists; not just any well-meaning mental health caregiver or nurse.. And such professionals don’t hang on trees – and they don’t come cheap. Would Shaun Robinson care to comment on how many more psychologists he believes New Zealand needs to set up his new system?

  2. Actually counselling young people is much broader than psychotherapy. But it does require professionals with relevant training and qualifications. We need more trained counsellors in schools, as we have seen unprecedented numbers of student referrals to the school counsellors. Many of these have come from parents, teachers, but the majority are self-referrals from students themselves. Certainly for some students it may feel awkward being seen going to the school counsellor, but it is not as widespread an attitude as Shaun Robinson may think. The focus is shifting to encourage more help-seeking behaviours, and making this OK. School counsellors are at the front line of assessing a range of mental health challenges and supporting students with a range of mild to moderate therapeutic interventions. For the moderate to severe presentations, we make relevant referrals to other health professionals but work with the young person throughout the process. Associated with this, we are in a strong position to support whole school approaches to wellbeing and work with staff and students to enhance this. Counsellors hold a pivotal and key position in prevention and intervention and we need to ensure there is at least one fulltime counsellor for every 400 students, in order to maintain safe school environments for our rangatahi.
    Diana Leonard
    School Counsellor


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