Mental Health Awareness

Horrors we’ve missed this Mental Health Awareness Week

This is my recent column in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital “Premium” edition every Thursday…

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. But perhaps we should rename it “Feel Good Week”, writes psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald.

I’ve started to dislike the word wellbeing. The intention is admirable, and I can’t help but get behind a budget that promises to deliver it – despite the name.

Yet as a way of thinking about human distress and suffering, it’s become the yoga pants of self help. Yet another thing to add into our meat free, dairy free, low impact, regular yoga and meditation-packed days of deeper fulfilment.

But worse than that. It’s co-opted conversations about mental health and sanitised the conversation about emotional pain and human suffering.

This week, of course, is Mental Health Awareness Week. But perhaps we should rename it “Feel Good Week.”

This year New Zealanders are being encouraged by the Mental Health Foundation – via the ingratiating lens of positive psychology – “to explore their way to wellbeing – that means we want you to discover the things that make you feel good and do more of them!”

All well and good. And to be fair, good advice if you’re not in the grip of an overwhelming depression or currently suicidal.

But of course people this distressed are no longer their target audience – even though they should be.

Because we’ve stopped wanting to make people aware of the reality of debilitating distress, the horror of psychosis, the unrestrained danger of a manic episode. The breath-stifling paralysis of obsessive compulsive anxiety.

The sad desperation of a full blown addiction.

Is prevention better than cure? Of course. But are we now avoiding the reality of our psychological distress epidemic because it’s just too hard?

Avoidance is human nature. But to fight – to really fight – the tide of despair we need understand it. And to understand it we have to engage – not avoid or sanitise.

So what should we all be more aware of this week?

• At least one third of women will experience violence in their relationships, and about half of all women who are victims of homicide will be killed by a family member

• One in three girls and one in seven boys will be sexually assaulted before the age of 16. For girls, 90 per cent of the victims will be assaulted by someone they know

• One in five adult women will experience a serious sexual assault in their lifetime

• Twenty-five per cent of us are currently drinking in ways that causes us harm

• In the last two years 75 people have died due to synthetic drug use

• We are on average more stressed, working longer, spending less time with our children and more and more time interacting with electronic screens than ever before

• And last year every 12 hours a New Zealander died of suicide, including 11 under the age of 14.

Our mental health is not out of balance because we’re not doing enough to make ourselves feel good.

We’re suffering more because we’re traumatised and more disconnected than we’ve ever been. And as a society we’re failing to provide treatments that have been proven to work because money has become more important to a majority of the population than the suffering of our fellow human beings.

Sadly, most of us would rather pay less tax, fund less mental health services and buy a new iPhone.

And it’s killing people.

So want to feel better this Mental Health Awareness week? Look in the mirror and ask yourself “What am I doing to help others? What am I willing to sacrifice to ensure others can get help.”

Then make changes.

Too hard? Ignore me then. Go sit on a beach, feel the sand between your toes. And good luck with pretending everything’s okay.

(Click here to read the article on the NZ Herald…)

Leave a Comment

  • Seán Manning October 3, 2019, 8:32 am

    Really enjoying your column, Kyle.

    This one woke me up. I have been ranting about ‘suicide prevention’ for a while now, writing to my MP (who happens to be David Clarke) and trying in vain to get an appointment. What we have done is to create a suicide prevention initiative that will follow the pattern of past initiatives. We have had many, all targeting individuals, providing services. None have affected the sad statistics at all. I am not sure why, but, demonstrably, suicide prevention initiatives targeting individuals do not work well at all. Possibly this is because a sizeable proportion of people who take their own lives have never accessed any services, but that cannot be the whole reason.

    We have no reliable risk prediction tool for suicide. The best measure there is, the one the DHBs use, will, if every box it ticked, indicate an increased risk somewhere in the order of 1 in 100,000 becoming 1 in 10,000. You still have to treat 10,000 people who tick all the boxes, to save one life.

    Not only do we have poor predictive ability, we have very little idea why our suicide rate is so high. We can be certain that it is not because our people are more depressed or more deprived or more abused or have more psychological issues or trauma than other peoples. It is certainly not because we have fewer or poorer services than other peoples.

    I am studying my own area – criminality, as a doctoral topic – to try to understand how self-destructive identities are formed.

    Before we can have a real impact on this problem, we need to answer some questions. I was hoping that the latest initiative would put resources into doing that. We should concentrate efforts on survivors, we should ask why thoughts of suicide are so common in high school children (Youth 2000 survey, 2014), we should make intelligent comparisons with other peoples, we should understand the problem before we will just what to do. The answer will probably not lie in individual-targeted services. It will be a society-wide solution.

    Best wishes,

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