On Mental Health & Suicide

Mental health can come in many forms. As a dying match in an abandoned prison cell. A spring hanging down an endless well—a tightening at every sharp breath. Even an old friend, stinking and stale with piss, who is always sitting in the back of the consciousness, nagging and drooling for another drink, or joint, or hit. Even that destructive, shadowy figure that no one wants to, but must, speak on. Suicide.

Last year, the terrifying number of preventable suicides in New Zealand reached its highest point since recording began in 2007, with 668 cases documented according to a Ministry of Justice coroners report by Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall. We need to do something meaningful to help those in need.

From my personal experience, two years ago, I had the sudden realisation that something was very wrong in my mind. I was depressed, self-medicating and I forever felt feckless and wrecked—I had planned and organised taking my own life articulately, on multiple occasions, with the bitter help of psychotic auditory hallucinations that I just couldn’t shake. I had landed my first ever job as a writer; I was Art Student of the Year at university; I had published my first book. The warning signs? There were none. I had always held stoicism and having a ‘stiff upper-lip’ as two of my key attributes, even though I never understood them fully.

I positioned myself firmly—full-force, scratched and sopping—with my nose to the grindstone, yet still I cracked under the pressure. The stress of ‘not performing’, admittedly, was my downfall. This is a common feeling many men and women have around the world, especially corporately. Many CEO’s or business owners, celebrities and/or TV personalities (who appeared to ‘have it all’) have lost themselves to this encroaching illness.

“Mental health doesn’t respect class or income or social-economic status,” leading New Zealand psychotherapist, Kyle MacDonald explains as we talk on mental health together. “People grow up in smaller communities or families where they’re taught to cope with their own emotional temperament.” A slight pause as he gathers his words for his next sentence—one that I personally relate to.

“In adult life, we then hit stress-sores or difficulties that might be performing well, work-load or relationships. We can look at those things as ‘triggers’. When those two things combine: the result is often struggling in ways that don’t make a lot of sense to us.”

Numerous articles were released after celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain, took his own life in June last year. He had recovered from a heroin addiction in the 80’s, and was renowned for pairing his exquisite meals with equally as exquisite wines on his several award-winning TV shows. We all watched the news break suddenly and unexpectedly of his passing. Another one gone. How many more? Only if we had the answer. Was it his fame that was wearing on him? Or something deeper? His recovering addictions? His own depression? “I feel kind of like a freak,” he described on one of his TV shows where he likened himself to Victor Hugo’s literary character, Quasimodo, “and I feel kind of isolated.”

Depression, anxiety and/or addiction are three major mental health warning signs that Bourdain suffered from. Thousands of people around New Zealand suffer from it too. Big advocacy groups around the country, like Movember, Lifeline, Samaritans and Youthline, are all putting government-funded steps in place to help people in need. A shocking statistic: by next year, depression is expected to become the second biggest disability worldwide.

What is depression? It’s a longer and deeper feeling of despondency. It’s a loss of enjoyment at pleasurable tasks, an ultimate lack of energy or sleepiness, and a difficulty in concentration, and/or a marked diminishing interest in sex, amongst many other negative symptoms. The New Zealand government estimate that depression costs them up to NZD$800 million in hospitals, workers and medications nationwide.

“The main struggle with mental health is a combination of a person’s mood (most commonly known as ‘depression’),” McDonald continues. “Low energy, or a higher mode of mania get in the way, and crippling or overwhelming anxiety.”

Depression is a dark time for people suffering from it. If you or anyone you know suffers from it, make sure to fill dark moments with hope. A simple question or chat with a friend can go a long way. Maybe sending a weekly text to a friend or asking open-ended questions like: “How are you doing?” or “What’s going on with you?” opens up a chain of emotional pathways that will hopefully help. It is often considered that silence is the most powerful scream.

“In my opinion, people should try ‘talk therapy’ before medication,” McDonald says as we begin to unfold the truth on seeking help for depression. “Medication is an option, but should be the second thing you should try. People can even free text or call 1737.” 1737 is the national mental health initiative put out by the National Telehealth Service and is easy to access by all.
GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) is another major mental health struggle that people go through on a daily basis, silently, so can often be dismissed. Anxiety, admittedly, is a psychological distress most affiliated to adults and youths. This ties into New Zealand having the highest youth suicide rates in the developed world. It is characterised by excessive worry that the sufferer is unable to control. Physical symptoms can include a sharpness of breath and feeling that they are going crazy and can’t breathe, or speak. Usually, a person with anxiety expects the worse, and gets stuck in the same routine.

American author and playwright, Arthur Somers Roche, once said that “anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.” To combat the cutting of this running channel, communication is key and there is a wide range of anxiety medications that have good results too. Going to a therapist or secondary support can help to reunite the five core values of recovery. Purpose, empowerment, mindfulness, community and forgiveness. These values are also interlaced into another major mental health battle that is happening right now and it’s affecting more and more, younger and younger people around New Zealand.

“New Zealand is pretty ‘up there’ internationally in regards to our drinking,” MacDonald explains to me. “There’s no question at all, despite the current debates around things like meth and possible legalisation of cannabis, that alcohol is, by far, the number one ‘problem drug’, in terms of addiction and medical cost. I know that alcohol is a major contributor to suicide being an impulsive act. In Japan they found that 24 percent of people who have attempted suicide thought about it for less than five minutes. Thus, it’s definitely a behaviour of impulse. Of course, if you’ve been drinking, you’re much more impulsive.”

Addiction is an ever looming problem that New Zealanders often glance around. Quite a general idea, addiction is a chronic disease of compulsion—or “impulse”, as Kyle points out.
Approximately 44 percent of New Zealanders will try illicit substances in their lifetimes and 93 percent will try alcohol. According to the 2016 Harm Index, 32 people died around the country from cannabinoids. There is a poisonous speculation around addiction that needs to change—the glamorization of substance abuse and/or drinking, especially in New Zealand.

It’s no lie that people use alcohol and drugs for many reasons. Some use for pleasure and recreation off their own backs, often from a result of peer-pressure, spiritual discovery, or to medicate physical problems or emotional pain. In 2016, the New Zealand Drug Harm Index stated the cost of drug-related therapies cost the taxpayers up to $1.8 billion. That ultimately causes greater harm to health and wider communities.

Drinking, to be honest with you, took a major toll on my wellbeing. I used drinking as a way to cloud my depressive thoughts secretly, with hope that it would lift my spirits, if only for a brief while. I was always the one at the party who could ‘down a 12 box’ no sweat—cool, calm, collect—and it went on and on and on until it wasn’t ‘cool’ anymore. Those closest to me voiced their concerns, to which I immediately shut them down, justifying with five, cold words: “I’ve got it under control”. I obviously didn’t. No alcoholic and/or drug addict “has it under control”.

Addiction is peppered with symptoms. It may lead to loss of day-to-day functioning, an inability to hold down relationships or a loss of motivation, quite like anxiety and depression. If you, or anyone you know, has an addiction problem, try understanding the reasons to why, pinpoint when and always ask how. Make sure to question those core values and try to find how these can be strengthened. Do not request for the addiction to step aside while you do this. Addiction is a very personal issue. They/you will not be able to successfully help if they/you feel forced.

The suicide of males is three times that of women in this country. According to statistics taken from UK-based health trust, Nuffield Trust, in New Zealand we have the highest death rate for young people ranging from the ages of 10 to 24. Suicidal people are engulfed by harmful emotions that are harboured within themselves, hazily searching for ‘permanent solutions’ to oftentimes temporary states. These harrowing thoughts may be fleeting, but they should never go unnoticed. Any level of suicide, whether it be a passing comment or a serious conversation, must be taken seriously, at all costs.

Upon reflection, I can pinpoint the moment I felt the noose of mental health tightening. I had been hospitalized for my depression, psychosis and thoughts of suicide, blisteringly reeling for another drink, unable to find any signs of light. On February the 16th, 2018, after a while of rejecting all help, I made a conscious effort to put down the drink and fought my depression seriously. I got truly involved in my recovery not just for me, but for my friends and family who had stood by me through this. A long road lay ahead of me—one that I’m still travelling. There are so many different journeys around the world, especially in big business and corporate roles that are not spoken about truthfully and honestly. I’m telling my story as a way of not feeling shame, or remorse (which I still feel often enough), but to simply share, and hope something positive comes out of it.

At the end of our discussion together, I ask Kyle MacDonald what to recommend those who are feeling strangled by mental health and he immediately urges to get support. “There’s the group of people that will reach out when they feel suicidal, and their mates will help treat what’s going on. We need to make sure that the help is there, available. Unfortunately we’re failing that in New Zealand at the moment. I’m really hoping that the latest Wellbeing Budget is going to address this gap. A ‘waitlist’ is useless when you’re feeling suicidal. You need to be able to access help then and there. The harder group of people are the ones that are suicidal but don’t talk on it. I’m not saying to reach out to all of our friends to make sure they’re okay—especially the strong ones—but we need to make ourselves as available through our attitudes and making sure that people see us as being approachable to talk to when they’re having a difficult time.”

Mental health is a very scary thing that many look at unnoticed. We, as a unity of New Zealanders, need to fight through this battle together, no matter the costs.

Where to find help: Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354 • Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757 • Healthline (open 24/7) – 0800 611 116