Depression. Anxiety. Suicide. Mental Health.
I developed depression/anxiety at the age of 17. I was uncovering completely new things, like new relationships, and school stress was starting to pile up. In my first year at the University of Otago I started self-harming and having extreme panic attacks. I also thought about ending my life and committing suicide. I thought I was completely alone. So, if you’re reading this, and you’re feeling that way, know that you are never alone.
1 in 5 New Zealanders will struggle with mental illness at some point in their lives and our country has the highest rate of teenage suicide in the developing world.
Maddie is in second year at the University of Otago. Her struggle with mental illness really kicked in for her nearing the end of her high school life. She told me about an incident before her final school camp. “I was called into the office and the dean told me I couldn’t go to camp because I was a danger to myself and other students because I had depression. They didn’t understand. The school counsellor even offered to come with me to camp, but the teachers still refused. When I got home, I overdosed. I took a dose that would kill a grown adult male. When I was being airlifted to Dunedin Hospital, I was hooked up to machines, but I heard nothing from school back home … no one wanted to check if I was okay. It was so disappointing. I don’t know why I’m alive after that incident.” This story shows how quickly one little thing can push someone over the edge.
There has been a lot of pressure recently for the New Zealand government to put more funding into mental health, with the government backing away and not doing a lot about it. With the general election coming up it’s a good time to put pressure on the political parties.
One of the things people are currently protesting about is the waiting times for people seeking mental health care. The 2016 People’s Report on Mental Health has a story from an individual in New Zealand who struggled with the waiting times. “Less than a month ago I experienced an anxiety attack that worsened and started taking me down. I don’t qualify for the services because I’m not a physical risk to myself or others. Not yet…” By the time a person gets to see a doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist, it may already be too late. A tutor for the Otago Medical School told me, “My daughter suffered from anxiety and depression. It was an enormously worrying and a stressful time. She was referred by her GP to numerous places but she didn’t meet their ‘criteria’ so she was turned away. Eventually, she was seen by a personal contact of mine, because I had contacts in the health sector. If I hadn’t known my way around the system we could have never had her seen.” So what about the people who don’t have contacts in the health system? What happens to them?
The TV show ‘Sunday’ told the story of an 18-year-old boy who lived in Christchurch, called Harry. He suffered from depression and he voluntarily admitted himself to a ward so he could be looked after. According to the programme, no extra supervision by the staff was stationed to him, despite his history of suicidal attempts. One night in the ward, he was found in a coma after a suicide attempt.
Three days later, his mother had to turn off his life support. She held him in her arms as he slipped away. His mother believes that the health sector failed him. Dr John Crawshaw, who has worked in the Ministry of Health for five years, was asked if he knew the NZ suicide rate for last year. Dr Crawshaw did not know. Like Mental Health Campaigner Mike King said, “The government don’t have a handle on the size of the problem, and worse they don’t want to know about the size of the problem”.
The Medical School tutor told me, “I’ve been involved in the student health and wellbeing project that’s been put in place for medical students. It’s integrated into our teaching so students are aware of the issues and how and where to get support to manage their stress and so on. I’ve known many students that have been affected by mental illness in their studies. We take it very seriously at the Medical School because doctors have a high rate of depression and suicide. The manager of the university disability office, Melissa Lethaby, told me, “Around 27 percent of the students we talk to here, are for mental health, which is many students. We have references to Student Health, student advisors who talk with students one on one and have help for people that need to catch up on notes for lectures. Come in and discuss support options, it’s what we’re here for.” Our university also has a project called Healthy Campus. Go to www.otago.ac.nz/healthy-campus, it will show you everything that the university has in place to help us out. If you’re having trouble with stress and assignments, go see someone. If you’re sick, go see someone at Student Health – it’s a whole lot cheaper than other places. Heck, if you're stressed, go along to OUSA on Wednesday afternoon and cuddle some kittens and bunnies!
What can we do to support ourselves and those around us? Since I have experienced depression and anxiety myself, this part will not be cliché things like ‘always look on the bright side of life’. It’s not always easy to do that when you’re struggling. But I can give you some advice that I used when I was in the very depths of it all.
MAKE LISTS: Just hear me out on this one. If your mental illness is dragging like a chain. Make a list. Of big or even little things you can pick in your mind to look forward to. It could be big things like ‘travel to Paris with my true love’ or little things like ‘have a white couch’. Anything you want to do, see or have one day, write it down. Because when those things come true one day, it’s going to be the best feeling.
LISTEN: If you someone you know is struggling with mental illness and talks to you about it, just listen to them. Sometimes, people aren’t just looking for advice; sometimes they just need someone to talk to, someone to listen and someone to understand. Their illness does not define them, but sometimes they need to just rant. Or just have a hug (if they’re that sort of person).
GET HELP: Sometimes, it’s not only just one friend that can help a person through mental illness. Sometimes yes, someone professional may need to step in and help too. Go with them. It can be terrifying opening up to someone. You don’t need to carry all of it on your shoulders; there are people who are trained to help. It’s more than okay to ask for help. I know it’s scary, I know it’s intimidating, but once you take those first small steps it’s going to get easier and easier to do. You really do not need to hide it. There is no shame. For men there is a social stigma about talking about your feelings. Because apparently, you must be masculine. I interviewed a guy who told me “the stereotype of men bottling up feelings is more of a social expectation”. I know it’s hard to let your guard down. No one is going to think differently of you if you ask for help.
Finally, I want anyone struggling with mental health issues to know a few things. I know what you are going through feels like hell. I want you to know that there is a future waiting for you, so many wonderful days and amazing little moments. You are unique and loved by so many people. Most importantly, you matter. Even if your depression is telling you otherwise. Even if you feel like you have no one right now, then you have me. We may never meet. But I want you to know that I love you, I think you are amazing, and I know that you will get through this. You will finish university and you will graduate and you will live.
Emergency Psychiatric Services: 03 474 0999
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Lifeline: 0800 543 354