Act leader David Seymour's alleged comments that people with depression should "harden up" have been denounced as "unfortunate" and "unhelpful" by mental health advocates.
Mr Seymour yesterday denied he made the comments, saying he was wrongly accused. However, he admitted he had used the term "harden up" when speaking to a Victoria University forum on Monday night.
The MP said he was asked a question that encompassed a wide range of concerns, including study and work and the level of student allowances, and not solely about anxiety and depression.
"I thought I could get up and do what every other candidate did, which was give a long answer avoiding the issue and I thought, 'Well actually, if you are going to see everything as a problem, probably the best thing for you is to harden up'," he said.
But the Mental Health Foundation labelled his remarks "unfortunate".
"The idea that people experiencing mental illness need to 'harden up' is unfortunately a common misconception, but it is very unhelpful," chief executive Judi Clements said.
"People in distress deserve our compassion and understanding, not our judgment."
The New Zealand Union of Students' Associations said it had received "multiple reports" of Mr Seymour's comments.
The Act leader's "dismissive approach" was out of step with evidence of mental health issues among the student-age population, national student president Rory McCourt said.
There had been a "near-universal rise" in the number of students seeking counselling services at New Zealand universities since 2009.
"We're disappointed Mr Seymour has taken this approach despite the evidence. The data suggests this is a growing problem," Mr McCourt said.
"How bad does it have to get for politicians to take the deteriorating mental health of our students seriously?"
He suggested Mr Seymour spend some time on campus with students "and ask them about the impact of rising rents, longer working hours, and unsustainable academic pressure on their studies and mental health."
Mr Seymour was one of several MPs speaking to a student forum at Weir House on Monday night.
Sophie Wynne, a first-year politics and law student, contacted the Herald to say she was appalled by Mr Seymour's answer. She approached him afterwards to clarify what he meant.
"His basic response to me was someone not choosing to be happy is not making the most of life," she said. "I asked him if he would ask someone with depression on a bad day to harden up and he said he would."
Mr Seymour denied he made those comments, "but I actually said you did have to choose sometimes how you are going to feel about something, which I think is true. But I did not say if you have a mental illness, you have chosen it."
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.