Graham Panther sounds like the name of a superhero. I'd never heard of him before, but I'm a firm fan.
Panther is a consultant who has helped establish mental health services in Australia and New Zealand, and he recently wrote a brave essay on the Spinoff website, confessing if he needed help he would not choose to go to any of the services he helped set up.
"We still make people feel shit for feeling like shit."
Panther knows what he is talking about. He has been through the mental health system when he had what used to be called a breakdown at the age of 23. Ten years later he says the whole experience made him see himself as a problem to be fixed, and that left him feeling really, really stuck. I hear you, brother.
The language of mental health is all about deficits and disorder. Getting anywhere in the system means taking on that language. But taking on that language can make it hard to hear yourself think, or to see yourself as more than a set of symptoms, Panther says.
I've been there too. You feel broken.
Panther says what helped him get out of the dark hole he found himself in at 23 wasn't getting a diagnosis, or finding any answers really.
"It was finding other people asking the very same questions. It was finding my tribe."
This elicits whoops of support from me.
"It's not just stigma, it's the whole way that we think about this stuff as a society. It's all about what's wrong with people," Panther writes.
I totally understand what he is saying. But the reason I am writing about it here, rather than just directing you to his excellent column, is that I firmly believe we could apply this thinking to areas outside of mental health.
I went on to the Spinoff's snazzy policy app - it's excellent BTW - and checked out all the policies of the political parties. I read each party's detailed manifesto. And I couldn't help feeling that many of the social policies sort of miss the point. Oh, there are so many programmes and packages and projects. Some of them are worthy and well thought out. But most of them come from the same place that Graham Panther criticises.
Most of the policies are focused on bureaucrats in Wellington "fixing" people when what is required is a different kind of thinking about how to connect and reconnect. Because let's face it, we've been trying to fix some of these intractable problems for years - poverty, dysfunction - and really, how well has that worked? Visit Kaikohe and see how much people there feel they have benefited from nine years of the so-called rock star economy.
I'm not just pointing the finger at the Government for their stuck thinking. Labour have had nine whole years to come up with some innovative policy, but seem to have been too occupied with their own psychodramas to do much. All their policies seem to be behind the eight ball. Establish a working group. Develop a 10-year strategic plan for early childhood education. Shouldn't you have done the strategic planning by now? Establish a commission. Hold an inquiry. Hold a hui, and so on.
And where there are policies, many of them entrench a dynamic where one party overfunctions, and the other underfunctions, and the more the overfunctioning party tries to "help" the failing party the more the disparity grows. You can't break this cycle by trying harder. You can only break it by getting alongside each other, through empathy and connection. Which is where Panther comes in.
I prefer Panther's peer support model. He advocates peer support services: where the staff are people who are employed because they have used the services they now provide. These kinds of services are now an established part of the mental health workforce, with an emerging evidence base showing they're cheaper and at least as effective as mainstream mental health support.
Yet Panther says this life-changing resource remains largely hidden. In most instances, you can access peer support only once you've first tried all the more expensive offerings - the psychiatrist, the nurse. You can access them "only once you've been thoroughly introduced to that idea that there's something wrong with you".
I know I'm letting you down as a columnist. Because I don't have any answers about how this model could be used for social services. But I do believe passionately that the way out of dysfunction and distress is through connection, through finding your tribe, not through top-down interventions.
Panther has set up a group called The Big Feels Club to make it easier for people to do this. He sees crisis and distress as opportunities for connection and growth. That is something to believe in. If it was a political party, I'd vote for it.