Tuesday, November 29, 2022

‘What I Learned When I Shaved My Hair For Mental Health Awareness’

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It started off as a lockdown-haircut joke, but it was after being inspired by the open mental health conversations from Movember that lead Ashley Clasper to shave off her own hair. As someone who has experienced depression, Ashley knows all too well that too many people – and too many of our men – are suffering in silence. So she decided to raise money for Movember by going public with her own mental health journey… and shaving her hair in the process. Ashley shares her story here.

TW: Self-harm, depression and suicide.

I’ve got to be honest here, shaving my head started as a lockdown joke. So many of us Aucklanders have been sprouting grey hairs, styles that no longer sit nicely and unintentional mullets as none of us can get to the hairdressers.

We must have been eight weeks into lockdown when my team started (contactlessly!) sharing a pair of clippers so the guys could shave their hair. I jokingly made a comment one morning about it being my turn next. I was bet $50 I wouldn’t do it.

The next week was the start of Movember. I was scrolling Instagram seeing bare faced guys joining the cause, and there was one that really hit home for me. I read the battle with depression and subsequent suicide attempt from one of the (seemingly) happiest, most energetic guys I’ve ever met.

He talked about withdrawing from friends, an inability to sleep, fighting your own mind in ongoing battles you feel unable to share because you don’t want to be a burden, and finally, making the decision that you don’t want to continue fighting what feels like a never ending battle.

I’ve struggled with my mental health well before I even knew what depression was.

All of that resonated with me so deeply and powerfully that within five minutes, I had registered my Movember page and made the decision to shave my head to raise funds for men’s mental health and suicide prevention.

I think it came as a surprise to a lot of people. Maybe because I’ve generally been an open book, but yet, this was always hidden.

In the process of making the page, it asked “my motivation”. Of course, I knew why, but it was something I had never shared with anyone.

I’ve struggled with my mental health well before I even knew what depression was.

By my late teens, I had started to move away from self-destructive behaviours but that wouldn’t stop the following six years of sleepless nights, emotional mood swings, lack of involvement in my own life, or depressive thoughts that wouldn’t subside.

You try to be the strong one for those around you even though it feels like you’re constantly on the edge of a cliff just waiting to fall into the abyss.

I remember crying uncontrollably in my doctor’s office that I was ‘doing everything right’. I was building a successful career, had great friends, a good relationship with my family, a stable home, I exercised regularly, ate well, and kept a regular routine but ‘it wasn’t working’, that ‘I’m just not strong enough’.

The truth is, we love to talk about wellbeing and self-care when it looks like face masks, bubble baths or candles, but we can’t talk about mental health when it looks like depression, self-harm or suicide attempts.

Shortly after, I left a toxic workplace, ended a long-term unfaithful relationship and moved out of my flat which had been my home for more than three years. It was like starting over.    

I remember my breaking point clearly. I was up all night, crying until I couldn’t see anything, with a headache so strong I couldn’t think. I was walking around in the middle of the night, feeling nothing inside of me anymore but wanting it all to stop. So, I said my goodbyes, and I meant them. I had truly had enough. I walked all night, trying to think of a reason not to, but I couldn’t.

And then, I watched the sun come up and I went to work. If I’m honest about it, it wasn’t not doing it that was hard. It was the next day. Making a coffee with four espresso shots in it, trying to force myself to stay awake and someone jokingly said “f–k, you look like shit – big night, huh?” I had nothing in me to respond, so I gave a half smile and continued making my coffee.

Mentally, I wasn’t at work. I was a million miles away, feeling isolated, trapped and alone, even with people around me. Every day since then has been a battle for change. Small but conscious efforts.

Since publicly joining the conversation, I’ve had countless friends, family, co-workers and people who I haven’t spoken to in many years reach out with their own stories battling depression, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

It’s been both humbling and frightening to say the least.

I’ve also had friends approach me to say they knew I was struggling, but never realised I reached a place so dark.

The truth is, we love to talk about wellbeing and self-care when it looks like face masks, bubble baths or candles, but we can’t talk about mental health when it looks like depression, self-harm or suicide attempts.

I can only imagine how much harder it is for men. They feel all of this on top of the pressure and social stigma to be the ‘tough guy’, where crying is often seen as weakness, and who feel unable to open up to those around them.

This is about social expectations, systemic discrimination and a consequence of our toxic masculinity culture. Quite frankly, f–k this ‘she’ll be right’ attitude.

Our mental health statistics reflect this. In Aotearoa, suicide is one of the leading causes of death for men aged 15-30. We also have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the OECD.

It’s never been more important. With the added strain posed by Covid lockdowns on our jobs, health, friendships and finances, the world is so much harder, more challenging and more isolating for everybody.

Every single person I’ve talked to feels this to varying degrees. We all need a little bit of support every now and then and there should never be any shame associated with that.

A lot of risk factors are out of our control, but how we approach them isn’t. Neither is how we support our friends and family, or how we open the conversation in an inclusive environment.

Whether that’s opening up to a friend, speaking with a doctor or taking the step to find a counsellor to get an unbiased ear.

Many workplaces offer these free of charge through EAP or XAP services, or there are a number of helplines you can contact in whatever way you feel most comfortable.

Asking for help isn’t a weakness, it takes great strength and courage.

It’s been less than a week since I shaved off my hair, but it’s been six months fighting to get my life back and a journey that’s taken me the better part of eight years to confront head on. 

Publicly joining the conversation and shaving my hair in support of men’s mental health and suicide prevention has been a mental, emotional and literal weight off my shoulders.

Men are dying too young and we can’t afford to stay silent.

For all the guys that are too afraid to speak up, that don’t want to be a burden, that feel they can’t ask for help, all I can say is it’s okay to take things at your own pace but don’t give up on the battle just yet.

For information on Movember – including how to sign up and donate, visit Movember.com. To donate to Ashley’s page, visit her page here.

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor 

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Healthline – 0800 611 116

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

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