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SocietyOctober 11, 2018

Does Mental Health Awareness Week actually change anything for people with mental illnesses?

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It’s Mental Health Awareness Week so your Facebook feed is awash with encouragement to “reach out”. It’s important people know they can reach out if they need help – but what happens next, asks Emily Writes.

Like many, many, many other people, I have quite bad anxiety. It has been described by various clever doctor types as having generalised anxiety disorder and social phobia and panic disorder and most recently treatmentresistant anxiety. Basically it means I’m a panicky mess some of the time.

If depression is a Black Dog, anxiety I think of as some kind of stallion galloping at you full speed. I have always had a fear of horses. As a cub reporter at a regional paper I once had to cover the races. It was my first time around horses. I was told by a bunch of grizzly old white men to stand by the gates – I should have realised they were setting me up as their alcoholic-red checks were covered in a sweaty sheen from laughing. But given this had been my experience of grizzly old white men for some time I ignored my gut and did what they asked. They positioned me, holding my shoulders. Told me to stand still. Then, with a huge bang, the gates opened and the horses lurched forward. I went flying backward into a bush. My legs and arms were scratched as I tried to stand up while the men laughed at me. I was insistent that I wouldn’t cry. Instead I called them a bunch of cunts. This only made them laugh harder. It’s a cliche but my heart really did feel as if it would burst through my chest.

I’ve always been afraid of horses.

They’re huge and scary and they have no reason to be gentle with humans. We turn them into glue and make them race for the enjoyment of rich people. We climb on their backs and hit them.

My anxiety is relentless and it won’t give me a break.

I can feel the thudding of a thousand hooves on mud and cracked soil before it hits me and I feel powerless. I cover my ears from the sound and try to focus on work. But ignoring it won’t make it go away.

I have little white pills again to help me this time around. It has been quite a few years since I’ve needed medication and I felt like a failure when I took my first one. I was unsteady cutting the pill in half while wondering why the fuck they make pills you have to cut in half. What am I meant to do with the other half? I can’t help but feel pity for people whose anxiety manifests in a fear of germs or tiny microbes in the air. That half pill waiting for the next day will be covered in them.

I have never been able to drink water straight from the tap. It has to have been in the fridge first. I know it doesn’t sit in the pipes but my brain wants me to believe it does. I have to run the water till the old water is gone. Then that water has to go cold in the fridge. Sometimes I can measure my anxiety spikes by whether or not I will drink the water in the glass by my bed. If it is now room temperature, it’s old.

Old water is bad.

I like bottled water. There’s no rhyme or reason to the way my brain works. It’s just like this.

But the pills work well and I feel more even. I can’t hear galloping hooves quite so much. I don’t feel like I’ll be bowled over, bones snapping and skin tearing under the weight of beasts.

When my son saw a woman riding a horse for the first time he was overcome. Never had he thought anyone could ride a horse. I often imagine the first woman. How did she ever decide to climb onto the back of a beast. Was it by necessity? Was she afraid?

It’s the ultimate hubris when people speak of horses loving their owners. I can’t imagine this. To me it’s like a Sea World trainer believing their orca wouldn’t rip their scalp off if they didn’t give them fish fast enough.

But I did believe my fish liked me.

I did very well on my half pill and sunshine and exercise for a while last year. And then I didn’t. And then, this year, I really didn’t. And then I had a breakdown and I ended up in hospital and now I have two white pills every day.

And my Facebook feed is full of friends who are struggling with their mental health. They take their white pills or pink pills and they try to have sunshine and they try to exercise and the black dog and the terrible horses are on their heels.

And sometimes they say “I’m not well”. And they do what all the very expensive campaigns ask us to do – they “reach out”. And everyone is mostly very kind about it. But unfortunately, kindness is only one part of it all.

After I was released from hospital I never heard from the mental health team again. Not even a text. I went to my GP and got some pills. My husband and I scrimped and saved and together we paid for two sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The sessions were $180 each. I spent the whole time anxious about the cost. I could only ever afford to go twice, and I think now I probably should have spent that money on a term of swimming lessons for my kids.

I can’t afford therapy so my husband listens to podcasts about gut health and its links to anxiety. I try to keep a diary of how I’m feeling. I eat when I’m told to and I eat well. And I take my pills and I walk along the beach. And during Mental Health Awareness Week I see ads encouraging me to take photos and use a hashtag. And to be honest I feel like someone looking in on someone else’s life.

And then I realise it: Mental Health Awareness Week isn’t for us – the lost causes, those with a stable full of horses and the black dogs screaming at the gate. The ads suggests “learning about native birds” as a way to be aware of your mental health. Everyone around me is very aware of their mental health. Imagine not having to be aware of your mental health? What a fucking dream.

Looking at the sunset helps apparently, according to the ads. Get your office to do the colouring in competition. What better way to other the people in your office who don’t need a week to be reminded that they stand on a precipice always of somehow losing everything. I know the Mental Health Foundation do wonderful things (hell, I just donated to them last month) and there is a place for sharing positive stories but sometimes I wish we could park awareness and go straight to action.

And I know I sound bitter but I’m tired.

I’m tired of the lack of options. I’m tired of high profile deaths that just have everyone telling everyone else to “reach out” as if 1) they can and 2) anyone even knows what to do once someone reaches out.

If you have mental health issues in New Zealand you need money to pay for psych fees that cost an eye-watering amount just for a diagnosis. You need money and time for therapy – which again, costs so much it is far beyond the realms of possibility for many of us. And you need support from not just your family but your workplace too. I am lucky that I’ve mostly worked at places that take mental health seriously, but I’ve never been able to afford proper health care and I likely never will.

My loving family and friends has been my only real support network and this – among my friends at least, those of us who are on low-incomes, are mothers, are in caregiving roles – is the norm.

So maybe we can make a change this year and when folks say reach out they could mean this:

Reach out to your local MP and ask them to make mental health a priority issue. Reach out and tell them that there isn’t affordable counselling available, that psychiatry costs more than dentistry and it’s a class issue that so many people will never have access to either. Reach out to those around and raise money for the organisations that are filling the gaps – PND Wellington, Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Awareness, Lifeline – those places that rely on grants after government funding cuts. Reach out to those people who the system never helped, those people who rely on soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and demand your local authorities support these charities for people suffering severely from a lack of mental health support.

Reach out to the people who can actually do something. Reach out so that when someone needs help there is actually help available.

Support services

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

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland.

Samaritans – 0800 726 666.

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). Open 24/7

Depression Helpline  – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202. This service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors

Samaritans  – 0800 726 666

Healthline – 0800 611 116

Counselling for children and young people

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email or online chat. Open 24/7. – or email or free text 5626

What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.

Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.

For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email

Keep going!