Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.
I am pleased that I was invited to join this discussion even though I don’t bring the kind of expertise to the table as do your overseas guests.
To be frank it was my interest in hearing what they had to say that led me to accept the invitation.
Nonetheless, it is important in any discussion about a city’s mental health and wellbeing that we look to cities that have experienced trauma – one, to understand what has helped those cities recover, but, two and more importantly, to learn the lessons of that experience – we learn as much from what we got wrong as what we got right.
I’d like you to think about the significance of that statement for a moment – 6 years is a long time.
There are children in our primary schools who don’t know anything other than a post-quake environment – they have no idea what the old Christchurch was like.
While many of us still grieve for what we’ve lost, there are many who will never know what that felt like.
And it has been a hugely unsettling time for everyone. The 4th September earthquake was the first, but the last of the major earthquakes was the 23rd Dec 2011. People speak of the thousands of aftershocks – the more significant point is that over 50 registered more than 5 on the Richter Scale.
But it was the shock of the February 2011 earthquake that will remain with the city for a very long time – we thought we had been so lucky after September – a 7.1 and no-one died, but its epicentre was some distance away. The 6.3 right under our city on Feb 22 2011 struck in the middle of the two hours where people take their lunch breaks.
The stories of who was where that day and why that was the case, still haunt many who survived, as they do those who lost family and close friends that day.
And then the decisions taken over the following months, offering some a sense of relief, others a sense of abandonment.
Our city has experienced a collective trauma and we must not minimise that.
5½ years on from then, there are still 100s of people who still haven’t settled their EQC or insurance claim – that’s better than the 1000s we started with, but can you imagine how you would engage in your city’s future if you were in their shoes – not knowing what would happen or when.
Think how stressful and anxious you would be; think how despairing or angry you could become in an instant. Think of the impact on the kids – no matter how much you would try to hide it – they know when their parents are fighting or have been crying.
Think how it would be with your friends, who have been able to move on and don’t want to be brought back to that place, polite though they may seem, they don’t want to talk about it.
I’ve lived in Christchurch all my life. I’ve been on this journey from the start, albeit in a different role back then.
I say I am not the same person I was 6 years ago.
I admit that at times I feel overwhelmed at the scale of what has to be done and the challenges that seem insurmountable.
And I feel that sense of disempowerment we were warned about from the outset.
And that’s where I want to start. Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Scientist prepared a briefing paper for the government within a month of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) being established. The paper was called “The psychosocial consequences of the Canterbury Earthquakes” and it stated that the potential existed for the emotional effects of a disaster to cause as great a degree of suffering as would the physical effects such as injury, destruction of infrastructure and loss of income. He said this:
“The earthquake was a disempowering event – an event that individuals had no control over and leaves them essentially with no control over how they live. The need to regain some sense of control over one’s life is central to the recovery process. Disempowerment essentially reinforces the initial trauma.”
Sir Peter warned the government that things like more aftershocks, delayed responses to the provision of key needs and a lack of local community participation in the recovery planning process would impede the recovery process.
He warned of the similarity with other processes – bereavement and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
He identified the high-risk groups, like women (especially mothers of young children), children and teenagers, as well as adults with pre-existing vulnerabilities. People with mental health issues he said could find themselves in more than one of these high-risk groups.
He talked about the different phases of the recovery process and the inevitable tensions that would arise.
“It would appear that key to minimising this phase is the promotion of local empowerment and engagement by working closely in a collaborative way with the affected population in co-coordinating and co-leading the response effort. If the population do not sense this is happening, then the phase may well be longer and the symptoms of anger and frustration more intense.
A feeling of self-efficacy and community efficacy assists the population in reactivating their coping mechanisms. Local governance, empowerment and ownership have been shown to facilitate recovery.
The inevitable tensions and conflicts in achieving this are obvious (long-term versus short-term, public versus private, local versus national interests) and cannot be avoided – rather, they have to be openly handled with sensitivity.”
Sir Peter provided a helpful check-list for the government to follow. It was important to:
- Recognise that the situation was distressing and not easy for the affected population;
- Be explicit about how the governance arrangements would facilitate local engagement and empowerment;
- Help the community recognise the conflict that is inherent between the desire for rapid physical recovery and the difficulties the planners face. He said the conflict was inevitable and real – the key was to involve the community openly in resolving it;
- Provide information on expected post-disaster emotions;
- Provide community monitoring and good information on access to support services;
- Provide clarity over reconstruction and rehabilitation plans:
- It is better for those in decision-making roles to be truthful and say ‘we do not know’ rather than obfuscate;
- It is important to set timelines for when things will clarify and information will be provided, and to meet those timelines;
- Those involved in the managing the recovery process must understand that recovery in the end is about people’s lives, not just buildings, although clearly getting a functioning house, infrastructure and workplace are core to recovery. They must be credible in demonstrating that understanding and they must be willing to activate community empowerment and engagement;
- Recovery planning must be broad-based and on-going. For example, re-establishing community services such as sports clubs is important.
I remember when I read this report for the first time – which was about a year after it was written. I was surprised that the advice had not been widely promoted back in 2011 when it could have helped inform the whole recovery process.
I mention this because if we are to truly learn the lessons of our experience in Christchurch, then we need to understand the importance of being open to receiving advice, even though it may not sit comfortably with our particular world view. My experience is that engaging communities in their own recovery is the most powerful recovery tool of all and it produces enduring solutions because they have been co-created.
And that is the real relevance of the Gluckman report to today’s discussion about a city’s mental health. When I talk about mental health at the city of community level – I tend to use phrases like promoting community wellbeing and building community resilience – because they raise the possibility of collective action as opposed to individual treatment.
The ongoing psychological effects of the earthquakes are enormous, which is why we approached the Minister of Health and asked if we could do something as a city to help address the city-wide trauma – approaching the issue from the perspective of promoting wellbeing and building resilience.
My experience has been that what helps build community resilience are in themselves measures of a community’s wellbeing.
They aren’t the total picture but they are a big part of it. And what disrupts wellbeing at the community level is often the antithesis of these factors.
I am talking about what builds social capital. I always say a community is not defined by the co-location of houses – that’s a suburb. It’s the relationship between the people who live there. But communities aren’t just based on place – there are communities of interest and of identity. In all these communities the strength of the ties between them defines social capital, but it is also about their relationship with decision-makers.
Connectedness and community participation are traits of community resilience. Where we are disconnected, when we do not participate as a community, we are not resilient.
Our proposal to work with Government is still being worked through, but the essence is taking a community-by-community approach to enable and facilitate communities to build social capital.
This is not a top-down approach – it’s a collaborative approach that enables communities to lead the way.
And the message I have for you today, is that you don’t have to wait for a disaster to think about enabling and facilitating communities to take charge.
Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation which has pioneered the 100 Resilient Cities network, ended her book called the Resilience Dividend with the following words:
“There is no ultimate or end state of resilience. But, by working together to build resilience to the greatest degree possible, we can reduce our reliance on crisis as a driver of change and, instead, deliberately take the future into our own hands – for the well-being of our families, our communities, our cities, and indeed, the planet we all share.”