In New Zealand, many of us are conditioned to believe that being vulnerable is something best avoided. Vulnerability is often spoken about as something that is profoundly negative and dangerous. If you're vulnerable, our cultural narrative goes, bad things will happen to you. In order to avoid those bad things, you'd better toughen up and move on. Stop moping, pull up your socks, get over it, etc.
In a recent interview with the Herald, All Black TJ Perenara spoke about being a member of the All Blacks' "Vulnerability Group". The group, apparently set up by Sonny Bill Williams and Ardie Savea, has eight members, and is, "a safe space where [members] can just come, chill, have a coffee and share whatever's going on in [their] lives; if [they're] having problems at home or in the team. Even if nothing's wrong, [they] just share that."
The image of a group of men – manly rugby players at that – sitting around drinking coffee and supporting each other through whatever problems they may be facing is currently an unusual one, but how amazing would it be if similar coffee groups cropped up around the country? What would the impact be upon family life, relationships and men's mental health?
The "harden up" mentality is a societal message that has caused immense harm to many Kiwi men and their families, as is demonstrated by our high male suicide and family violence statistics.
Perenara explains the need for men to become comfortable with vulnerability, and to have safe places to go for help, better than I ever could: "As boys, we're taught to harden up, man up and move on. But once you're an adult with real problems, if you're trying to keep it all inside, that's when bad things can happen. You get home and spew it all out. We need to show boys that it's okay to be vulnerable and talk about your feelings. If we can do some of that work here between us, it's going to make us better players and when we go home, we're going to be better men for our wives, our parents and our brothers and sisters."
Reading such a well-considered and thoughtful statement from one of our national sporting heroes both gave me hope and made me wonder how we can use the All Blacks' example to make real changes in our communities. I'm obviously not a man, so I don't have the answers, but I'd be interested to hear from men about how we could all work together to facilitate the changes required to help men to reach out to each other without fear of ridicule or being fobbed off.
Does it start with one brave bloke, sending a message to his mates to say, "Hey if you need a chat, I'm here," then checking in individually with friends who seem withdrawn, angry or down? Do we need educators (or even All Blacks) to go into schools and workplaces to deliver workshops around wellbeing? Should community groups like sports teams be holding "Are you okay?" training sessions once a month, when instead of running drills the team focuses on mental wellbeing? What would it take for us to shift our cultural response to distress and struggle from one of silence to one of openness?
While mental illness and depression are clearly part of the context of this broader conversation, when they dominate the narrative, I wonder whether something gets lost. What TJ, Sonny and Ardie have done with their vulnerability group is flip the narrative. They've made it okay to feel vulnerable, and for that vulnerability to not necessarily be the harbinger of terrible things. In creating a safe space for open conversation, they've taken a preventative approach, which focuses on wellbeing, not negativity. The whole point of being open about what's troubling you is to feel supported and hopefully feel a bit better. The boys in black are doing the mahi to stay well, making them better players and better family members, rather than kicking into action only when things have started to go wrong.
You don't need to be diagnosed with depression to benefit from a chat with your mates if you're feeling a bit off. We all have bad days, and sharing our struggles with trusted friends and family can help us to get through the tough times and to reduce their frequency. Being open about our vulnerabilities can also help us and those around us to spot developing problems before they become overwhelming. If someone is in danger of becoming depressed, and they're regularly talking to their friends and whānau about what's going on, those friends and whānau can step in if things get worse. Friends and whānau are the teams that we live our lives as part of. We all become better "players" when we communicate with our teammates.
While all eyes will be on our national team over the next couple of months, as we cheer the All Blacks on to a hopefully sensational World Cup victory, perhaps we should turn our eyes – and our non-judgmental listening ears – to our own teams at home too. I wouldn't be surprised if we all had a team member who could use a bit of support, or just a quiet kōrero every now and then.
Let's follow TJ, Sonny and Ardie's lead and get into the habit of making open and vulnerable team chats a regular part of our lives. If the tough dudes in the All Blacks can do it, Kiwi blokes everywhere can. So let's encourage our fathers, brothers, partners, sons, nephews and our male friends to start talking, and let's all start listening when one of our brothers reaches out for a coffee and a chat.