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Wellington’s Evolve clinic does a brilliant job helping disadvantaged youth – and now it’s unable to cope with demand

This week it was reported that a Wellington youth clinic that offers free doctors’ appointments, mental and sexual health services, and support for homeless teens has closed its books to new patients. The loss will be felt throughout the city, writes Jess McAllen.

There’s a scene in the 80s movie Heathers where, following a spate of teen “suicides” (spoiler: they were murders), a flaky teacher makes students band together in the cafeteria and hold hands. Ms Fleming – a tone deaf adult who takes pride in her listening skills – aims to form “one mighty circuit” of “togetherness”. It’s all for show. Students push and shove to be interviewed by the local TV network while ignoring the bullied suicidal Martha who hides under a table.

Heathers

Heathers’ key appeal, aside from injecting scrunchies into mainstream consciousness, is highlighting how teen emotion is fodder for politicians and media. And boy, if we aren’t seeing our own version of the cafeteria scene play out this year. A recent report by Action Station reiterated long-acknowledged failures in the mental health system. Suicide has become an election issue, with Labour and Greens dropping the topic in every second interview and calling for a review of mental health care, even though there have been plenty of largely unimplemented plans in the past. It’s a step forward, but we also need to be aware that it’s easy for a government to say ‘well, we’ve acted, we’ve done the review’ and leave things at that.

On social media, people who aren’t mental health experts are spouting uninformed opinions on what will help our suicide rates decrease. Even more concerning is the dominant narrative – from people not even in the mental health system – that it’s not worth asking for help because you won’t get it. In focusing on the negative we have forgotten to look at what is actually working.

Earlier this year, in a story on Māori youth suicide, I talked to teenagers in Whangarei who were about to lose a one-stop-youth-service called The Pulse. The community centre, on the former Raumanga Primary School block of land, held 33 services including youth groups, food-help and maternity programmes.

That staff at Wellington’s Evolve clinic have now had to turn away 500 youth since January because of overwhelming demand points to a worrying trend.

I first went to Evolve in July last year. I was throwing up three times a week and wanted to find out what the hell was wrong with me. I was the poorest I’d been in ten years and couldn’t afford a doctor’s appointment.

Evolve coffee table. Photo: Jess McAllen

Tucked inside an upstairs maze-like corridor, in the purple, pink and yellow James Smith building on the corner of Manners and Cuba Street, Evolve offered relief. Typical waiting rooms are clinical, carpet-walled and blasting hits from the 80s, 90s and today, with dated women’s magazines to read. Evolve is different. Every time there’d be a surprise on the coffee table: sandwiches, scones, sample beauty products, hotel shampoo-conditioner sets. And baskets and baskets of condoms.

It’s a welcome change for anyone used to community mental health waiting rooms full of comic sans, clip-art and reminders that staff do have the right to restrain you.

After multiple blood tests and a month without dairy (cheese is basically my number one coping mechanism so this was hard) the doctor had an answer: anxiety. Turns out your mental health can also intertwine with your physical health and I was in a bad way in both respects. We set the wheels in motion for community mental health care (Evolve offers free counselling but my stuff is a bit complicated). I have two months left with Evolve as my GP until I turn 25, at which point I’ll be over their age limit.

Evolve is an essential Wellington service for disadvantaged youth. They have a really big influence in the homeless community and provide support for young people of diverse genders, sexes, and sexualities, including those who identify as transgender. It’s a place where youth can feel safe and supported, especially if they don’t want to go to their family doctor (a hard thing to do if you’re being abused at home). As well as doctors and counsellors, Evolve offers a strong sense of community with activities like coffee groups and low-key hangout sessions around Christmas (a time of year that can be particularly difficult) with Netflix, pizza and board games.

Bella Bolter says Evolve helped her when she was homeless, suicidal and pregnant.

“I came to Evolve via the Special Circumstances Court when I was homeless. They put me in touch with a youth worker who was able to get me emergency housing through the Salvation Army,” she says.

“When I had a mental health breakdown and attempted suicide they had me on weekly nurse check-ins that helped and monitored my medications and recovery. Social workers helped me with WINZ and getting back into employment.

“When I was pregnant they recommended me a midwife and helped me through my whole decision process and when I had the baby they were great with my Post-Natal Depression and providing me a social outlet with their young parents group. I still use them as a GP and the occasional social worker visit even though I have my life much more together now, thanks in large part to Evolve.”

Another Wellingtonian, who wants to remain anonymous so her employer doesn’t find out about her mental health issues, says she found Evolve after graduating.

“I was having a hard time with mental health but was in a minimum wage job so couldn’t really afford to go to the GP,” she says.

“Evolve being free was massively helpful. Even after I got my current, better paying, job I didn’t leave because their kaupapa was so great. They have a really good understanding of LGBT issues and never asked me any rude questions or told me incorrect things about my sexual health as other GPs have.

“They were also super good about treating my mental health problems in a non-judgemental way and had a really good holistic approach. They seemed to really care.”

At the moment the people making decisions about what is best for New Zealand youth have stepped straight out of Heathers. In the place of fictional pop band Big Fun’s song ‘Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It!)’ are cutesy posters saying “ask for help” and endless hysteria about 13 Reasons Why. But when teenagers actually ask for help, the cafeteria is empty, and the funding gone.


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