In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check out previous chats with people like Hayley Holt, Roseanne Liang and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Today we chat to Jehan Casinader.
Warning: This article discusses depression and suicide.
On the outside, his life looked incredibly impressive. Not yet 30, Jehan Casinader was named as New Zealand’s Broadcast Reporter of the Year, working at TVNZ where he was well-respected and contributing to a number of different news and current affairs shows.
But in reality, Jehan was at breaking point. He was suffering from deep depression and would spend his nights awake, tormented by suicidal thoughts. Only a very small number of friends knew the extent of his depression, and he eventually left his job and moved from Auckland to Wellington – with many wondering why he’d made the move.
Last year he wrote a powerful book – This is Not How it Ends – as he navigated his way out of the pits of depression. We spoke to Jehan about the book, his depression, what he’s learned and the masks that we all, to some extent, put on each day.
How are you today, Jehan Casinader?
I feel really optimistic today. The sun is shining in Wellington, which you can never take for granted. I’ve spent the week visiting businesses and doing presentations about mental well-being. This morning I shared my own story with a bunch of workers wearing high vis vests at a utility depo! It’s not easy, opening up a conversation about depression and suicide at 7.30 in the morning, but they were really engaged and positive. So yeah, that was a rewarding start to the day.
Wow, that must be pretty fulfilling! Can you tell me how those conversations go, with people who – I’m stereotyping, I know – but I imagine have quite staunch, tough exteriors? How receptive are they to talking about mental health?
Well, I feel really grateful that I was able to spend the whole of my 20s traveling around this beautiful country and meeting people from different walks of life, eating at every fish and chip shop, staying in every little motel and every nook and cranny of the country. I feel like journalism gave me an education that money couldn’t buy.
And so in the work that I’m doing now, I just try and meet people where they are and relate to them on their level. I talk about my own journey. I draw on the big stories that I’ve covers over the past decade. And I also teach the basics of personal storytelling and explain how important it is to tell healthy and hopeful stories about our own lives because those stories do have an impact on our mental well-being and the research shows that.
It’s a powerful tool, telling your own story – which brings me to exactly what you’ve done, your tremendous new book, that tells your story. I really loved this book – I did find it a difficult read at times – but it’s so powerful and so beautifully written. Congratulations. How does it feel now having that all out there?
So bearing in mind, what I’ve written about in the book is not ancient history. This is very much been the last four years of my life. So, I’m not speaking from a position of, ‘this all happened on the in the past, and then I popped out the other side and life is grand now!’
That’s not where I am. I’m still doing a lot of work on myself. I’m still figuring stuff out. But I think it’s far more realistic to share a story like this with people and say, ‘Hey, I’m still on the journey. And you might be too but that doesn’t mean that your story has no value’.
I think we’ve got to do a better job of allowing people to be vulnerable and authentic while they’re in the process of learning how to be well, rather than waiting until they can tell some amazing survival story that may or may not eventuate.
Yes! I love that. So many stories must have gone untold because people didn’t feel like they were ready. We all think things like, ‘I’ll do that once I reach this certain stage or milestone’, or when my story actually feels worthy enough to tell. But when do we actually ever feel 100% ready? I also think it makes your story feel far more accessible, that it’s something you’re still navigating.
Oh 100%! I’m incredibly frustrated by the fact that our mental health conversation in this country is still framed around fixing and curing. I think a lot of people believe that the goal is to erase your mental distress, so that you can be well. And I hate the term ‘mental illness’, because it suggests that this is binary, you know, you’re either well, or you’re unwell. Well, the reality is we’re all on a spectrum, right?
We all experience periods of distress, depending on what’s happening in our lives. And that doesn’t mean that you’re broken and defective, it just means often that you’re having a normal, human emotional response to whatever life throws at you. So if we can frame the conversation that way, I think it’s a far more hopeful and empowering place for people to start that journey of healing.
Can you tell me how you came to end up writing this book? Because I know that you tried all the things that they tell you to try – pilates, Prozac, adult colouring books… the works. But why did you decide that writing a book about your experiences might end up being a good tool?
! felt like I’d spent four years pulling all these different levers trying to see what was going to work for me. And you do have to do that – you have to give yourself some time to experiment with different mental health strategies.
But I realised that it was this amazing tool that had been right under my nose the whole time, which was storytelling. I had made a living from sitting with people and listening to people who had been through incredible distress, and adversity in their life. And I noticed that the common thread was that these people had found a way to change the story, to change the interpretation of what had happened to them and that is incredibly powerful.
So I wanted to explore that and do a kind of experiment myself, to see whether I could rewrite my own life story in a way that allowed me to move through my depression. So that was the idea for the book! That didn’t mean that I wanted to write a book, it was an opportunity that was presented to me by HarperCollins. And I, at the time, didn’t even know how I was going to sort myself out, let alone how I would get 50,000 words onto a page and then go through the process of birthing that very publicly into the world.
And now I can see now why people want their diaries burned when they die because it’s, it’s quite confronting often, to see what you’ve written!
But the book has been out for a few months now and I’ve been really heartened by the response I’ve had from people who say that it’s resonated with them. And it’s given them a different lens and a different perspective, to view their distress, and I think that’s really what we need.
I think often we are looking for the answer or the solution to our mental difficulties, and the reality is, what works for one person won’t work for another person. So we actually just need a whole range of different ideas and perspectives that people can pick and choose from, and try out for themselves and see what works for them.
Early on in the book you write about being there on the ground for the March 15 attacks, which you were really in the thick of as a reporter and working around the clock to deliver the story. It sounds like it was an incredibly distressing thing to take on. How did it feel at the time – were you aware of the emotional toll that the story was taking on you as you were living it?
Yeah, I think, I was aware. I was aware because I had already done so much work on myself. I been in counselling for a good couple of years. I had read a lot. I had changed my life. I, I think I had a good understanding of what trauma is and how it affects you. But my job also gave me a huge amount of structure, purpose and worth.
So even though I was severely depressed, the fact that I had to get out of bed each day, and I knew that I was working on stories that were important and could potentially make a difference, that helped me to keep myself together in one sense, but in another sense, that lifestyle was also contributing to my distress. So, yeah, it was an interesting paradox.
Absolutely. Last year I spoke to John Campbell about this a little bit, about some of the most absolutely distressing things he’d witnessed on the job and talking to people during the absolute worst moments of their lives. He said that he carries those stories with him everywhere he goes. I thought about that when I was reading your book, because you wrote that those stories really stick to you and that darkness stayed with you. Have you developed any techniques around that?
It’s a really tricky balance. On one hand, you, as a journalist, you have to be detached enough to not take on everybody else’s pain, because it’s actually not your pain to carry. But at the same time, you can’t become desensitised to the point where you lose the ability to empathise with people, because then you’d be a terrible person and a terrible journalist, probably. So that’s a challenging balance, to strike.
For me, the most important thing was looking for a thread of hope in every story, no matter how bleak it was. And that’s something that I’ve focused in all my journalism is, you know, no matter how, no matter how dark, or grim the story is, how to how do we give the audience a sense that people can survive, people can overcome challenges – they may not be able to erase the trauma or difficulties, but they can find a way through.
There’s a new trend now called solutions-focused journalism, which is this idea that every story needs some component of ‘what could a different future look like’? How could we tackle this problem? Where is the bright light on the horizon? And I really liked that idea, because I think the news can be so overwhelmingly depressing at times, and people are so hungry for.
Oh particularly in today’s Covid-19 world. I just want to go back to what you were saying before about the paradox you were describing. Because it sounds like at that time you were having to live a double life to some extent. How many people knew the extent of your depression?
A very small number, there was probably there was only probably four or five friends who knew just how bad it was, as time went on, and I told more people that I had experienced depression, but yeah, very few people knew just how bad it was.
But I’d also say that it’s not just people in the media who put on masks. I really think that all of us, we put on masks that we go out into the world each morning wearing and we try to be the person that other people expect us to be.
And that in itself is a way of getting through, it’s almost like a self-protection mechanism. So I don’t, I don’t begrudge people for putting on a mask, because often, it’s the only way that they can protect themselves and to function.
100%. And now we all have a device in our pocket that can be that mask – so many people use their social media platforms as a way to tell a story that is often so far from the reality they’re actually living.
Yeah, we live in an era in which we are constantly comparing ourselves to other people, do I measure up? What does this person have, but I don’t? What are the areas in which I’m deficient? I really believe that our obsession with voyeuristically peering into other people’s lives is a significant contributor to how we feel, mentally.
And the challenge is to stay in your own life, and live an authentic life that is true to your own values and beliefs. And if you’re able to do that, which is a pretty tricky thing to do in this day and age, then you’ll be far more fulfilled, and far more content.
I think your book is coming out at such an important time. What do you hope it might achieve?
I really hope this book helps people to step outside the clinical language of mental health, you know, to go beyond terms like ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’, which are really useful in a health setting, but can also become quite burdensome.
I always say to people, we are not defined by distress. And I was for a really long time, I just became this really pathetic, depressed character in my story, I felt like my brain was broken, I felt like I was defective. I felt like I was hopeless.
So for me, the notion that I had depression, became this really helpful story in my life. And what I had to do was actually return to the things that made me who I was, you know, my values, my beliefs, my interests, my relationships, and remind myself that those were the things that were really important to me and those were the things that that made up my identity, not whatever distress I was experiencing in that period.
So that is what I would really like for people is for the book to allow them to rewrite their own story in a way that’s more hopeful.
Did the diagnosis of depression sometimes feel self-perpetuating?
That’s absolutely what happened for me – that became the dominant story that I then lived out. I thought that I didn’t want to go to work because I had depression, I thought I didn’t want to see my friends because I had depression – it became an excuse for me making bad choices.
I resigned myself to the fact that something had gone chemically wrong in my head. And therefore, over time, I came to believe that my choices didn’t matter. So, you know, I will emphasise that diagnoses can be really useful, but if we allow them to dominate our thinking, they can actually be really unhelpful, they can achieve the opposite.
So I think the key thing is, don’t be defined by your diagnosis. A diagnosis tells you nothing about your, your true identity. As a person, it’s just a reflection of where you’re at, and the symptoms you’re experiencing at a particular point in time.
That’s such a great point. Because I know you, quite rightly, have your frustrations with the mental health system. I loved the line in the book where you said, ‘getting depressed was like being hit by a car and having to phone the ambulance myself, while I was lying in the middle of the road.”
Well, here’s, here’s the thing: I’m 30 and I’m really fortunate to have grown up in the first generation in this country that has benefited from a reasonably open degree of conversation around mental health. I was at high school when Sir John Kirwan wrote the word ‘hope’ in the sand in that famous ad campaign.
It has led to all this change, but, you know, after all this time, I am quite sick of talking about mental health awareness. We are all already aware. And if you’re not aware that there are mental health challenges in this country, then you’ve been living under a rock! We need to move beyond awareness and towards action. And that means we have to do more than just tell people to ask for help.
We have to empower them by giving them tools to take control of their own well-being because our mental health system, which is under so much strain, cannot by itself erase everyone’s distress. We have to actually help people to look after their own well-being as well.
Thanks so much for writing this book Jehan, and for being so generous with your time today. To finish off, do you have any final messages for anyone reading this who is struggling, or feeling in a similar position to where you were when you started writing this book?
My key messages would be you may be experiencing a period of mental distress, you may even be suicidal, but remember that your distress does not define you. You are not defective. Your brain is not broken. You are experiencing a period of challenge. And that’s okay.
What’s most important is that you ask for help – be open with a small number of people who you can trust – and that you take responsibility for your own well being. You might not be able to change the circumstances of your life right now, but you are the main character in your own life story. And you are also the author of that story. That gives you a huge amount of power to create a more healthy and hopeful story around your life and that may well help you to move through your mental distress – it certainly did for me.
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