Dusty Roads

A Kiwi living in the new Zimbabwe

Hope for mental health?

August 19, 2017

An important issue has lurked on the edges of the limelight for most of this election, sadly shunted out of reach of the main beams by leadership changes or falls from grace.

For weeks now politicians of most persuasions have made policy announcements or passing comments about it, but it still hasn’t had all the attention it deserves.

I’m talking about the topic of mental health in New Zealand. Specifically, our suicide statistics, which set us apart in the developed world for all the wrong reasons.

In fact, our youth suicide rate is so high that it made headlines on the BBC in June. “The rate of 15.6 suicides per 100,000 people is twice as high as the US rate and almost five times that of Britain,” ran the story. The article focused on what might be behind that rate, and the conclusions punted to the British public were far starker and more blunt that what we are brave enough to say.

“There is a “toxic mix” of very high rates of family violence, child abuse and child poverty that need to be addressed to tackle the problem”, says an expert in the article.

But beyond the foreign news headlines lies yet another staggering statistic; that New Zealand’s rural population suffers from far higher rates of suicide than does its urban one. In fact,”suicide rates are higher in rural areas at 16 per 100,000 people compared with 11.2 for every 100,000 people living in cities”, said yet another report earlier this year.

In total last year, the equivalent of 11 people each week took their own lives in what must be acknowledged as our nation’s mental health plague.

But again, rural or youth suicide isn’t the problem. It is a symptom – a symptom caused by a bad relationship with drink, with partners, or with guns. A symptom of broken families, abuse and poverty.

And that is where politicians and policy announcements come in. So far the subject of suicide has been treated as if it exists in isolation. So far we have heard about how to help mental health services cope through extra funding, or programmes that might be put in place to breed resilience. These are important parts of care, but they don’t address the problems.

Problems like family violence or child abuse or bad relationships that are linked so strongly to our negative mental health statistics. Problems like the breakdown of our communities that leads to isolation and an inability to connect to someone-anyone-who can help.

We are not, in other words, talking about causes, only the consequences.

That simply won’t do.

If we are to start seeing a shift in our statistics, surely we have to get beyond the band aids and start looking at why depression or mental health issues are so prevalent in New Zealand in the first place?

Surely we have to start scratching beyond the surface – no matter how scary it might feel- to find out what stark realities hide beneath.

And surely if strong, healthy, loving families, or connected communities, are linked to low suicide and mental health illness rates, as the Ministry of Health seems to suggest, then we need to start talking about how to nurture these. Yes, we may end up tripping over the toes of some of our deepest values, like the individualism that makes it so hard to hold families and communities together here, but saving lives is worth a little compromise, I think.

We can’t keep kicking the issues around like a political football. Surely when it comes to tackling an issue as serious as suicide, we are all on the same team.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz






What family is for

July 29, 2017

I’m starting to wonder what parents are for in New Zealand.

First, there was the Government’s provision of breakfast, which suggest that us parents are not responsible for feeding our kids.

The government is – whether or not we can afford it, apparently. At the same time, we read story after story on our credit card debts and apparent inability as a nation to manage our personal finances. Yet suggesting that budgeting courses for some parents could be of value is highly offensive and judgmental.

Next, there were the papers on sexuality education in schools which hardly mentioned parents. Apparently, mum and dad are not responsible for teaching their kids about the birds and the bees anymore, the government is.

At the same time, parents are all bemoaning the accessibility of porn and impact of technology on their kids without a single bit of help being offered them for negotiating these complicated waters.

Finally, this week the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor released a discussion paper on youth suicide in New Zealand.

It was a haunting read, because the stark, devastating facts are laid out in unrelenting clarity. You simply cannot read the report without gathering the strong impression that many of risk factors are rooted in family.

Here is the list of those risk factors so you can make up your own mind: Socio-demographic factors, low educational achievement, bad family relationships, impulsiveness, anti-social behaviours, factors like depression, low self-esteem, drug or alcohol abuse, a history of suicide among family and friends, and violence or abuse in the family.

In New Zealand, if you come from a broken, fragmented family or community, you are much more likely to take your own life as a teen.

The solutions, according to several very intelligent men with whom I don’t wish to pick a fight, but rather to question, is school.

School, where the government feeds our kids, teaches our kids private values, and now protects them by offering emotional resilience programmes.

The question, of course, is where do mum and dad come in? Where does the idea of family come in?

Because here is the reality: A child who comes to school without breakfast in their tummy might very well be going to bed at night without dinner in it either.

And a child who is learning all about the birds and the bees from a government-approved programme, but has parents who don’t know how to teach them to negotiate the tricky topic of internet pornography and social technolgies, will likely pick up values and behaviours from their screens.

A child who is taught emotional resiliance at primary school but who goes home to a house where dad hurts mum every night will still struggle with the effects of that behaviour on their lives.

The inescapable, unavoidable reality is that kids have parents, and come from families. Not matter how easy it would make policy, or how good the slogans sound, we cannot help our kids without helping their parents or their families.

In short, we cannot keep shunting the problems our kids are facing at teachers, youth workers and principals. We cannot keep shunting them at schools.

It is time to start treating parents like they matter. It is time to start supporting families if there is a problem being faced by their kids. It is time to remember what parents are here for, and, if needed, to help them carry out those responsibilities and privileges to the best of their ability.

After all, we won’t be helping our kids until we start helping our families.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz