Having anxiety and depression was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and at the time I didn't see how things could ever get better. But I made it through and I'm glad to be the person I am now - definitely with more self-knowledge and more compassion for others.
Clinical psychologists Dr Elliot Bell and Kirsty Louden-Bell, my collaborators in this book, tell us that one way to make ourselves feel better is to be grateful and to do things for other people - this is part of what is called "positive psychology". Wow. That's really radical advice because it goes against the way society pushes us - to want more all the time, and to be so busy we don't have time to look outside our own little lives. Elliot and Kirsty's point is interesting because it suggests a contradiction between social pressure and what it takes to be well. In the "I" society that we live in, people say, "I won't do something for someone else; I'll do it for me." But I saw a great comment online recently: "When the 'I' is replaced by 'we', even illness becomes wellness."
For mental wellness, you probably need to behave a bit differently from how society is telling you to behave. Society is saying go fast, and mental health is saying slow down. Slow the treadmill down.
For kids, these issues are especially pertinent. What's it like to be a kid today? We explore that throughout this book, and I can tell you, it's not like it was when I was a boy. There's lots more pressure on kids to know at a very young age what they want to study, what they want to become - "the bigness of it all", as one 13-year-old put it to me recently. Everything's competitive. There's social media, which constructs a kind of false world where it looks like everyone else's life is happy and perfect and popular. Teenagers are surrounded by drugs and alcohol and encouraged to grow up and make their own decisions when they're scarcely out of primary school.
We've given them this world. How can we help them through it?
Today I went and sat in the sun with a cup of coffee. I don't do that often enough. I tried to be still, to feel the sun on my face, to really taste the coffee. I've learned that these simple things keep me well. Slow down.
Sir John with his new book, Stand By Me. Photo / Peter Meecham
I realise I've been rushing. I rush to work in the morning; it's 35 minutes from home to work, and I feel like I'm pushing the whole way. I'm not even late but I'm rushing. Why? It's a state of mind. Shit, I'm busy. Well, hang on a minute. Why don't I just relax and enjoy it? I know I could seriously get depressed again unless I make a conscious effort to say to myself, hang on. And that makes me realise: it's not just what I'm doing, it's how I'm living while I do it. There are two approaches to driving to work in the morning, and neither gets me there any sooner. There are lots of things I can't change, but it is within my power to change the way I drive to work in the morning.
Being present in the moment is part of what psychologists call mindfulness. It's an increasingly recognised technique that contributes to wellbeing. There are programmes trialling teaching this to kids in primary school. Brilliant - it should be part of the curriculum.
Reproduced with permission from Stand by Me by John Kirwan with Elliot Bell, Kirsty Louden-Bell and Margie Thomson. Published by Penguin Group NZ. RRP $40.00. Copyright © text John Kirwan, Elliot Bell and Kirsty Louden-Bel, 2014.
WHERE TO GET HELP
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm to 6pm weekdays)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• The Word
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.