Never make assumptions

Ka hao te Rakatahi
Nā Nuku Tau

Mental health awareness was huge in 2018, which was fantastic. It’s no secret the classic New Zealand culture of hypermasculinity and keeping a stiff upper lip is a fertile breeding ground for all sorts of mental health woes. Publicity campaigns and heightened general awareness of the issue can only be a good thing.

I’ve been lucky enough not to have any major issues. I’ve been raised all my life with occasional words from friends and family (Taua Meri was the last one to say) that it’s OK to talk when I need to. John Kirwan’s heartfelt campaign has always stuck with me. My friends and I always check in on each other when it looks like something might be up. Both my high schools had decent education programmes on the topic. With all this in mind, I felt like I was pretty well sorted for dealing with any issues should they arise with myself or my friends.

However, there’s always more to learn in life, and that’s what I found out on my trip to Gisborne for Rhythm and Vines. The roadie up and the festival itself were great – everything my mates and I could ask for. We got on the rark, chilled on the beach, and worried about nothing in the sun and grapevines for four days. It was the last place I expected to encounter mental health issues – but I did. A friend of mine had become out of sorts on the last few days. He wasn’t very chatty and became indifferent to everything, unless he was extremely wasted. Everyone dug into him for being moody or a sulk but I decided to hit him up. After a talk on New Year’s, he explained he had been having regular, random dips into depression for about a year. It had worsened at university and was seriously affecting his quality of living – his study, work, and social life. He had been to the university GP and received help, but still struggled with his mind from time-to-time.

Mental illness isn’t a sign of being weak, and being well-off also doesn’t automatically protect you from mental health issues either.

I remembered how he was ripped on at school for being moody or for bringing down the atmosphere. Although I don’t think I’d ever personally teased him for it, I still felt shame. He was one of my closest friends and I’d never even thought to ask him about it. Because of a bunch of assumptions I’d almost unconsciously made, it had never even occurred to me that there might be something wrong. In my mind, him being mentally ill didn’t seem possible. He comes from a great family and is financially comfortable. So, I just assumed he would be fine in his head too. These are obviously bullshit assumptions to make, and I’m embarrassed to admit I did – cultural narratives I’ve picked up along the way that are obviously detrimental to mental health solutions. Mental illness isn’t a sign of being weak, and being well-off also doesn’t automatically protect you from mental health issues either.

New Zealand has made progress in its dialogue regarding mental illness, but there is still a long way to go. It is constantly in the news, and most young people I know are sympathetic to the topic. People are good at making Facebook statuses about being there for anyone who needs to talk, and that’s great; but how good are we at seeing little everyday things that tell of something bigger? I’d like to think I am, but here I obviously failed. Poor mental health doesn’t just mean someone who’s immediately suicidal or obviously suffering. There are lesser extents that we need to be mindful of and which deserve attention from people close to you.

Issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression are all around us every single day, whether we see them or not. In New Zealand, 11.8 per cent of 15–24 year-olds report mental health issues – a 5 percent increase from five years ago. One in six adults have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some time in their lives. Our suicide statistics are appalling, with the annual rate increasing since stats were first taken in 2008. In the last count, we increased from 606 to 668 over a year1. Mid Central District Health Board clinical executive for mental health and addictions, Marcel Westerlund, commented in a recent interview that in the last 10 years New Zealand has lost a small town the size of Pahiatua to suicide.2

The fact is that despite all the dialogue, it’s actually getting worse, and I’m not entirely sure why. My friend wasn’t suicidal, but it’s all part of the same wider issue of this nation’s generally poor mental health situation. I know plenty of people my age who have had some sort of mental illness or harrowing experience through it, and I’m sure you do too. There are obviously far worse cases and stories than my friend’s. But what I feel I’ve learnt is that any little sign or hint of something wrong should at least be met with a small but sincere inquiry. For 2019, one of my resolutions is to better look out for my mates, and I hope it’s something you’d consider too.

1. Kirwan, John. (2019, January 13).
“I look after my mental health every single day”: John Kirwan on living his best life.
Retrieved from

2. Rankin, Janet. (2018, September 4).
Mental health crises increase fivefold in three years.
Retrieved from

Nineteen-year-old Nuku Tau (Ngāi Tahu, Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri) recently completed his first year of a law degree at the University of Canterbury.