Psychologist, psychiatrist, therapy, counsellor. For many, those four words are among the most frightening in the English language. To use them is to imply something is wrong, that someone is crazy, the funny farm is looming on the horizon. Uttering just one of them can mean an admission of supposed weakness; a show of vulnerability that rings discordantly against our national chorus of "harden up".
I remember the stigma of feeling suicidal; the way it flashed in people's eyes when I confessed I was seeing a psychologist. I remember the clammy silences as they fished for a response. I remember being told that I'd be fine if I just "went out on the piss more".
This week, the Herald has taken the courageous step of launching a series about suicide, "Break The Silence". I have read each piece with my heart in my throat. The stories of Colin Taipari-Herewini and Mia Dunn made me physically gasp, with tears burning in my eyes that refused to fall. Because sometimes crying just isn't enough to express feelings of horror and fury.
Feelings can be overwhelming, or they can hide behind a brick wall of numbness. Whichever may be the case, Kiwis are useless at them. If feelings were a sport, we'd be near the bottom of the international rankings. Our feelings team would look something like a rugby side of big, burly blokes who were all afraid of the ball. "And the fullback boots the ball down the field and... oh you won't believe this... the New Zealanders are running in the other direction!"
Catching the ball or, as I like to think of it, accepting your feelings, isn't easy. Learning to name the swirling mess of unidentified emotion that makes life seem overwhelming is hard work. Acknowledging feelings of sadness, anger, despair, inadequacy, self-loathing and fear means knowing, deep down, that something has to be done about them. Which is where psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors come in. How on earth can we be expected to catch the slippery, awkwardly shaped ball, rocketing towards us from a height of 15 metres, when no one has taught us how?
To my mind, therapy is really just a form of coaching, by which I mean no disrespect to the hard-working health professionals who have undergone years of training to learn how to help people. I wish everyone had access to therapy, and that there was no stigma attached to it. I learnt more about myself and about how to deal with life's challenges during my time in therapy than I learnt in 13 years in the education system. Which is not to say that schools and teachers don't do their best; they're just not trained or resourced to deal with their students' mental health needs.
And let's be honest, we all have mental health needs occasionally, whether we just feel a bit down about a challenging relationship, stressed out during a particularly busy time or we're experiencing a diagnosable mental illness. Mental health isn't just measured by the absence of disease, but by how okay (or not) we feel. If our national narrative encourages us to ignore our struggles, be tough and get on with it, can we really say that we're all that mentally healthy? Is it really a surprise that our violence statistics are so bad when we walk around hiding our hurts and pretending that we're okay?
We pride ourselves on being a resilient bunch, but we need to redefine what it means to be resilient. The kind of resilience we need is having the strength to hold on and reach out when the going gets tough, not the kind that locks people inside their own cognitive torture chambers so we don't have to have uncomfortable conversations about feelings. We need to change our national narrative. Instead of, "harden up", we need to say, "it's okay to feel sad". Then we need to go a step further. "It's okay to feel sad, and would you like to talk about it?"
While in my ideal world everyone would have access to therapy, to undergo a bit of a "life check-up" and learn a few tools to help them to cope with their troubles from professionals who are literally trained to help people to live better lives, in the real world the mental health of our fellow Kiwis is up to us. It's up to us to put pressure on our representatives to improve and adequately fund the health system. It's up to us to decide which party (or parties) will deliver better mental health outcomes.
But most of all, it's up to us to reach out to our neighbours, friends and whanau and ask, "are you okay?" To make time to sit with them and listen to them without judgment. To encourage them to seek the help of professionals who are trained to assist them. And to make it okay to do so.
The level of suicide we have in New Zealand is a devastating sign of a sick society. It's up to us to fix it.
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Samaritans 0800 726 666
• If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.