‘Harden up’ is precisely the wrong message to send our children

Reported comments by Waikato District Health Board interim chief executive Derek Wright and perpetual disappointment and retired ball man Mark Richardson have seen parents being told they need to tell their depressed children to harden up. Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes wonders why old men are so committed to pushing children to their limits.

Update: The Waikato DHB CEO has been in touch to clarify his comments, saying they were not in relation to suicide. See the note at the foot of this piece.

In a recent article about a devastating spate of suicides I didn’t expect to see a DHB chief executive push the quite frankly bizarre opinion that suicide is just a problem for “kids these days”.

It might be why he’s interim chief executive and not the actual chief executive – although the bar couldn’t be a lot lower there – but Derek Wright had some quite frankly batshit views. Imagine being asked for comment on a story about beautiful young lives being snuffed out by suicide and actually saying the words: “There’s no competitive sports at school. No one wins, so everybody gets a medal in the running race, well real life’s not like that.”

Yes, he literally just linked youth suicide and self harm on not getting a medal in a running race. Despite the fact that children do get medals in running races. And we still have a massive suicide problem in this country.

My son came fourth in his running race, and guess what? He didn’t get a medal. Because this idea that we have a medal surplus in New Zealand is a fucking fantasy invented by idiotic white men with no concept of what children are actually facing in 2018.

Derek wasn’t done though. He also wanted to talk about that well-known cause of suicide known as “not having an exam system”. I shit you not.

“The problem is they’re managed through school because we don’t really have an exam system any more and they get to university and start failing their assignments and exams and go, ‘I dunno how to cope with this.'”

According to the reporter from the NZ Herald who must have the patience of a saint, Derek accepted that one per cent of the population have a psychotic illness.

It would have been a full bingo if he’d blamed mental health problems on social media. Oh he did. Stand down.

He also blamed that new invention from 2017: drugs and alcohol.

“I’m not suggesting it was all perfect when I grew up but we didn’t have social media. We didn’t have 100 people commenting on what you think, or what you say,” he said. As he passed comment on the motivation of a child who feels so lost they have chosen suicide.

Maybe this was not an interview with someone who apparently has “40 years experience with mental illness” and was actually an elaborate attempt to audition for The AM Show. If so, he’ll be in fine company with well-known expert on parenting and full-time outrage goblin Mark Richardson.

New Zealand is losing hundreds of our children a year to suicide. Mark Richardson has decided to contribute  to this conversation by rehashing the “we are not teaching resilience” message.

“Tell them to harden up,” he frothed.

Yes indeed, the man who once fell face down screaming and wailing when he got cramp thinks today’s children need to harden up. The man who is almost incontinent with rage over someone suggesting a nickname is hurtful thinks today’s children need to harden up.

The man who spews barely coherent bullshit for a living does not see the connection between his desperate fear that he might lose his social standing for his opinions and this ridiculous notion that children need to be bulletproof.

Our children are dying. Men are dying. There are men dying because they keep being told to harden up. To not cry. To hide their feelings. When we have sportspeople, even mediocre ones, saying on national TV that anyone upset by bullying just needs to harden up, it just pushes struggling people further and further into the darkness.

My dad is Mark’s age and I know he has lost friends to suicide. All of the people I know who have died by suicide have been men. They have been men who I did not know were struggling. They were hard men.

And do you know what? Being hard might be part of why they’re dead.

Being hard and being told to harden up might be why they couldn’t open up to their wives or children about their struggles. Being hard might be why none of their friends ever saw that they were hurting so very, very much.

My dad was raised a surfer, almost literally in a sea of toxic masculinity. I have seen him try to get through that and along with his mates shed that bullshit. They go on surfing trips together and they look out for each other. They do their best to encourage other men, younger men, to throw that “harden up” bullshit away.

I have two sons. I don’t want them to be hard.

I want them to be alive.

I want them to know that when they hurt they can talk to me.

If people must keep perpetuating the ridiculous idea of “real men” then I want my sons to see their dad as an example of what it really means to be “a real man”. A real man doesn’t joyously mock other people on television. A real man doesn’t spew hatred at others because he’s so afraid he will have no opinions left if they’re not designed to hurt people. A real man is a man who wants kids to be safe, not tough.

Real resilience isn’t about dishing out slurs and verbally abusing people. Real resilience isn’t about medals and exams.

Real resilience is standing up for your fellow man and saying: mate, you don’t need to harden up, you need to be here with us.

Real resilience is teaching your children that they don’t need to close themselves off to the world to be part of it.

“That was not the intent of the comment,” Richardson barked when questioned about mental illness.

It’s time to think before you talk Mark. You are part of this national conversation about why our kids and our men are dying. Your words matter, whether you intend them to or not.

You have the position and platform to do something with your life and make a real change.

A real man would do that.


Update: A Waikato DHB spokesperson has emailed to say that the remarks quoted by the Herald “were not given as part of this story but were part of a general discussion about mental health and children’s resilience”. Their use in the report means “it appears he is making the comments in relation to this suicide which he is not”.

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