By: Chris Reed

Sunlight shone through the wall of windows as AUT students spoke about some of their darkest times.

The occasion: A session led by the Green Party’s new spokeswoman for mental health, Chloe Swarbrick. She was nine days into the job and three days into a tour of eight universities.

Her mission: Starting her attempts to connect with those “affected by the epidemic of mental health issues in this country at the moment”.

They sat, last Wednesday, in the lounge of the student association (“your voice at AUT”), a group of about 20 talking of mental pain and how tough it is being young.

There will be plenty of people who reckon students have it easy. Maybe more who reckon tough times are part of growing up.

That stance, said Swarbrick, needs to change.

“Young people are finding it hard to identify when they are experiencing mental ill-health.

“That appears to be because we have a really pervasive story in our society that our youth is supposed to be a time of adversity and struggle and that’s kind of the rite of passage of thing. It’s a narrative so deeply entrenched that we don’t often challenge it.”

Of the 668 deaths for the year to June 30 recorded in the Chief Coroner’s provisional suicide statistics, the age band with the highest number of deaths was 20 to 24-year-olds, with 76.

New Zealand has the worst teen (defined as 15 to 19-year-olds) suicide rate in the developed world.

At least 11 university students have died by suspected suicide in New Zealand since 2015, prompting a shake-up of campus mental health services.

The New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations has claimed tertiary students are failing to reach their potential because of the mental health crisis.

Swarbrick has been open about her own struggles with anxiety and depression during her teenage years. She still see her psychologist regularly.

Rather than giving her any special insights, her history made her “quite normal”, she said in her maiden speech to Parliament last year.

Students were her first target group since taking on the mental health portfolio because it was easy to reach them. By the end of the tour she was expecting to have met several hundred. The process was proving “really enlightening”.

“I feel as though Parliament is the ivory tower – it’s this wood-panelled, plush-carpeted room where everybody pontificates about the plight of the regions or urban areas and it’s quite inherently disconnected so I thought it was important to talk to the people who are experiencing this issue first-hand … genuine experience and stories and voices that are informing my perspective.”

The AUT session wasn’t about bashing the university. Rather it was an open dialogue about the pressures of modern existence: juggling real and digital lives; the rise of materialism; time poverty; the grind of the daily commute; how to help troubled friends through tough times.

One young woman bemoaned a lack of cultural understanding among health professionals who told Maori and Pasifika students to talk to their families about their struggles. Such families, she said, were commonly less understanding of mental illness than their Pakeha counterparts.

There was discussion of the long wait for counselling, a wait that doubled or tripled around exam time. One student turned to her lecturer – an arrangement that went on to last six months – rather than wait for an appointment.

“Men talked about perceptions of masculinity, alcohol abuse as a method of escapism,” said Swarbrick. “Young men talked about being gutted about finding out mates were in trouble after the fact.”

And always the stigma around asking for help – heightened by that limited access to counselling which created the perception you had to be “so bad” to get in.

Such themes are far from restricted to students of course: They were common at public meetings held by the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction.

Swarbrick said the inquiry, due to report back by the end of the month, was “very important”.

“I think that mental health is connected to pretty much everything. It’s the pointy end of decades and decades of austerity and poor decision-making around social, justice, educational, health and other policy.”

Commentary since her appointment to the portfolio has suggested not having a ministerial role would allow her to put more heat on the Government without jeopardising the Greens’ confidence and supply agreement.

“I sit outside the exec so I’m able to work constructively with the Government but also constructively critique it,” she said.

That confidence and supply agreement includes a guarantee of high-quality and timely mental health services for all New Zealanders, including free counselling for under-25s.

“That’s a big, big commitment and I’m going to give everything I have to ensure that’s delivered and part of that looks like holding myself to account to all of the folks who are out there trying to access these services.”

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week.

WHERE TO GET HELP NOW

If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE

• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland (24/7)
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (24/7)
• OUTLINE: 0800 688 5463
• SAMARITANS – 0800 726 666
• SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz

There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.

Source: NZ Herald

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