Currently, our lives are caught in the strange split of the worst Covid wave yet just as things are starting to open up again, so if you’re feeling a bit of whiplash, you’re in good company. We’re going to be talking to some of our favourite people from the mental health sector about where we’re at now, and what we can expect as we start to process the events of the past two years. First up, Hugh van Cuylenburg, co-founder and presenter from The Resilience Project.
“A couple of weeks ago – and if someone had said this to me back in November, I would have had a panic attack – Covid-19 was the fourth biggest news story,” Hugh says. “There was the Ukraine, the [Sydney] floods, Shane Warne dying and then there was Covid. And part of me felt quite good about that, and then the rest of me was like ‘what is happening to the world right now?!’”
It’s a sentence many of us have uttered in the past few months, as the already relentless news cycle got, well, even worse. As part of his work with The Resilience Project, Hugh has been addressing big crowds on all things mental health for the past few years – and you’d be correct in assuming that demand has never been higher for these chats across Australia and New Zealand. (In a touch of Covid irony, Hugh’s NZ’s leg of the tour has been postponed three times due to lockdowns; it’s currently set for November).
One of the key points he makes early on is that we really have reached a new level of unprecedented world events, at least in our lifetime. “We used to say ‘we never know what’s around the corner in life,’ but looking back, we had a fair idea. Now, we genuinely have no idea what’s around the corner… we never thought a pandemic would happen. We never thought world war three would happen.”
‘I think we’ve been deeply traumatised and people are sitting around, with their heads spinning, saying ‘what on earth has happened to us?’
Hugh lives in Victoria, a state that is further ahead than NZ in terms of the Covid wave. The attitude towards Covid, he says, has definitely changed from “Will I get it?” to “Will it suit my schedule when I get it,” but for the most part, it’s radio silence as a topic of conversation.
“No-one talks about it; Covid is not talked about in Victoria anymore,” he replies. “I think we’ve been deeply traumatised and people are sitting around, with their heads spinning, saying ‘what on earth has happened to us?’ I don’t think we know how to process any of it, yet.”
“It kind of reminds me of when you through something traumatic as a kid in the school yard, maybe you’ve been bullied or there’s a fight, and you wake up in the morning and you’re like ‘Ugh, I don’t want to go to school today,’” Hugh says. “When you hear about the [Covid] numbers going up again, you get that same feeling in your stomach.”
When Hugh does get to do his big, in-person talks, he’s noticed some distinct differences in the crowds. #1, Numbers are way, way up. #2, A lot of people start writing notes when he gets to ‘coping strategies for challenging times’ (he estimates he would see maybe three people take out a notepad or their phone before Covid; now, it’s over half the audience.) #3, There are a heck of a lot more tears. “There are three points during the talk where I will see a lot of people crying; there are a lot of people who are pretty broken at the moment. It’s just… it’s everywhere you look at the moment. I mean, there is good news happening in the world but it’s hard to find.”
This makes things hard for two reasons – firstly, it’s grim when the news is so grim. Secondly, it’s hard to see the glass as half-full when you’re constantly being told that not only is the glass half-empty, it’s going to get emptier. “Optimism is a huge part of being mentally healthy; optimistic people are more resilient. But I feel like the things we used to be optimistic about have been stripped away from our lives. That’s a huge problem.”
“I feel like the things we used to be optimistic about have been stripped away from our lives. That’s a huge problem.”
As a parent of two young kids, that can feel pretty overwhelming. “I’ve had many points as a young dad saying ‘this is not fair, I don’t want my kids to grow up in this world,’” he says. “You feel very helpless and that can make you feel pessimistic – and angry. Everyone’s so quick to rage these days.”
As we all look for an emotional release from this time, anger or sadness can definitely feel like the most accessible emotions. But Hugh would like to offer a bit of light relief from a recent Melbourne outing – the footy, of course. He works with Carlton Football Club, one of the biggest football clubs in Australia and on their first game of the season, 80,000 fans packed the arena. When the underdog team won for the first time in 10 years, Hugh says there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“Grown men crying everywhere,” he says. “And I felt, ‘these are definitely tears of joy, but there is so much coming out here.’ It wasn’t just about football, it was ‘I’m back doing what I love, with my friends – and 79,999 other people – and this is what the world is actually about.’”
Even the concept of having an event to look forward to – then having that event take place – is a precious joy in a world where everything gets cancelled at the drop of a hat. Hugh’s got a huge event taking place at the Melbourne Comedy Festival but he says he still doesn’t believe it will happen, even though lockdowns are (mostly) a thing of the past in Australia. “I haven’t got excited about it yet because I’m like, something will happen. Something this good can’t actually take place.”
“I haven’t got excited about it yet because I’m like, something will happen. Something this good can’t actually take place.”
If that thought is familiar, so is this follow-up: in the middle of trying to remember an anecdote, Hugh gives up because he’s lost track. “That’s the other thing – these last couple of years are a blur; I can’t remember anything. I can’t remember dates, or times, or what’s happened. I just think about myself with my hair being all over the place, in my pyjamas and Ugg boots for two years,” he laughs.
Hugh can definitely see the impact of the lockdowns on his kids – with a four-year-old that’s nowhere near ready to go to school next year, and a two-year-old who was born in February 2020, who still gets overwhelmed by too many people. But there’s a tool he’s using with his own kids that he says can be so helpful for helping kids – and their parents – get their heads around what they’re feeling.
“Emotional literacy is key – getting parents to help kids label their emotions,” he says. It’s part of The Resilience Project curriculum – a programme available in some schools in, which has been proven to keep kids mentally healthy during the past two years. Every couple of hours, kids will be asked to identify how they’re feeling – and if they don’t know, they’re asked to they point to the face that they feel on some flash cards. Then they have a chat with an adult about what they feel and why they’re feeling it.
“When we talk through our problems, what we’re doing is getting someone to reality check our fears and worries for us – and they’re never as bad as we think they are,” Hugh says. “So teaching a kid from a young age that they can have someone reality check their worries and their fears is really powerful. But you can only do that when they can start by saying, ‘I feel worried/scared/hurt/angry.’”
“Vulnerability is about taking an emotional risk and what we need right now, more than anything, is to connect with each other.”
It’s a great reminder for grown-ups, as well. “A big thing for adults is trying to find the courage to tell someone how we’re feeling at the moment,” Hugh says. “If someone reaches out to us and says ‘I’m struggling,’ what we often try to do is just fix the problem straight away. But it doesn’t make the person feel better – they just want to be heard and they want to be seen and they want to be validated. Validation – then problem solving. Validation has to come first.”
“A lot of us, in order to move on, we need to be prepared to make ourselves vulnerable and really start to talk about what the ordeal was like for us,” Hugh says. “It doesn’t have to be a therapist, it can be someone you love, someone you trust. Share your story and how hard it’s been for you. Vulnerability is about taking an emotional risk and what we need right now, more than anything, is to connect with each other.”