This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme for 2020 is ‘He Tirohanga Anamata: Reimagine Wellbeing Together’. For the past six months, Emma Clifton has been chatting to Kiwis around New Zealand for the Mental Health Foundation and she checks in with how we’re all feeling
When I was young and first learned about the planets and gravity, I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t what we were discussing the entire time. To my child brain, it seemed simply ridiculous that people had jobs, bought things, or did anything other than talk about how crazy this whole universe set-up was. We’re on a round ball of a planet, our feet pushed to the ground, lest we just float up through the atmosphere and fall into outer space and you want to talk to me about times tables? I don’t think so.
A lot of this year has felt similar.
I find it very hard to talk or think about anything other than the fact that we are in a global pandemic, no-one has any answers and we are all simultaneously living through the strangest moment the world has ever seen, so when someone tries to talk to me about, I don’t know, shoes or whatever, my brain shuts down a little. All I want to do is ask people: how are you feeling, really feeling, during this time of total catastrophic flux? How are you sleeping? How is your mental health? What is making you feel okay, what helps on the days when you wake up and everything inside you feels dark?
So it is a true gift from the universe that in April this year, post redundancy, pre Capsule, I took on a freelance job working for the Mental Health Foundation. My job would be exactly that – to talk to people, about three or four a week, about how they were. Early on in the pandemic, the Mental Health Foundation teamed up with All Right? and Te Hiringa Hauora to create ‘Getting Through Together’: their advice for, and response to, these unprecedented times. They wanted real-life case studies of people who had gone through hard times to provide advice on how to do it. It quickly became one of the best jobs of my life.
Over the course of this pandemic thus far, I have spoken to around 40 New Zealanders from truly all walks of life about their mental distress, or their mental health, and what gets them through. I’ve interviewed people who have lost loved ones in this time. I interviewed one former colleague who was made redundant in the same Zoom phone call where I also lost my job, and then one week later was back on Zoom again, organising a funeral for his father in the UK. I wept on the other end of one phone call, listening to a man in his 70s crying as he told me about the last minutes he spent with his mother, talking on the phone to her in her final moments because travel restrictions meant he couldn’t be there in person. The same man whose Facebook Live link failed to work for her funeral, meaning he missed it. I’ve talked to a funeral director who had to step in as a representative, because no-one was able to attend a funeral she was holding, again due to travel restrictions.
It is impossible to underestimate just how hard this year has been for so many of us – how much loss we are all going through, one way or another. This makes it sound like every conversation has been maudlin, when it’s just the opposite. Every conversation involved more laughter than it did tears – even people in the midst of crisis were always still able to point out the sheer black humour absurdness that comes with life (and death). The man who missed his mother’s funeral described, laughing through tears, the frantic search for different Facebook accounts to try and make the link worked. “That’s technology, eh – when it doesn’t want to work, it doesn’t work,” he chuckled ruefully.
I’ve talked, repeatedly, to a mum-of-three from Northland, whose small town was devastated by flooding just as they were all starting to get back to normal following Level 4. Every time there is a crisis – and in a poverty-stricken town, there are many – the community wraps around each other. People check in on their neighbours, offer food where they can. Community has been the thread that runs through all of these stories – it’s what helps people bounce back. There’s a reason why our Prime Minister refers to us as a team of five million, there’s a reason the Mental Health Foundation calls its response “Getting Through Together.” Mental distress can be isolating, reaching out is the salve.
There have been essential workers – carers, people running mental health services, a man who runs a food bank in South Auckland where people, newly unemployed, queued for hours the day after losing their job. There was a young woman in recovery from drug addiction who started her own recovery group in Northland, after personally feeling the benefits of shared experience. The saying ‘He Waka Eke Noa’ – we’re all in this together – has been used multiple times. So has the phase ‘this is a marathon, not a sprint’, to describe our current Covid-19 situation. There have been people battling suicidal thoughts, psychosis, borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, eating disorders… a wide range of extra things to work with. When people would share their worst times, none of it felt ‘other’ to me. Mental distress is a continuum – some years you are on one side of the scale, some years you are on the other.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the biggest thing I have learned is that by being aware of your own mental health, you can empathise and sympathise with others, as well as help them. All of the people I spoke to talked about the simple appreciation of having someone in their corner, who they could ring up and say, “I’m having a hard day, do you have time for a chat?” Those people who were always there, whether the conversation was a simple catch-up or whether it was a more serious one, an SOS that immediate help was needed.
Life is hard and this year is harder for all of us, and extremely hard for a lot of people. If you’re having an okay time, it’s still worth learning some of the ways you could take care of yourself a little better – a way to be a little kinder. If you’re not having an okay time, please know that a problem shared IS a problem halved and that you are so very not alone in all of this. Trust me – I have the phone records to prove it.
For more information on Mental Health Awareness Week, please visit here. And for more information on “Getting Through Together”, including resources on dealing with grief, workplace wellbeing, suicide prevention and wellbeing for whānau, please visit here.