New Zealand is not great in terms of mental health or support for those with mental illness. That’s putting it lightly. OECD statistics shows how high New Zealand’s suicide rate is compared to most developed countries. Alongside us? Australia and Canada. The similarities between Commonwealth countries suggest that British colonisation has affected our approach to mental health.
Britain is well known for emotional repression, and that attitude spread with colonisation. The ‘stiff upper lip’ – a mentality encouraging the suppression of sadness and fear, or basically any uncomfortable emotion – undoubtedly had an impact on our approach to mental health. Rather than talking about our problems, we gloss over them and dismiss them. Putting forward a brave face occasionally is fine, but not when it involves leaving significant problems unaddressed.
The British reluctance to acknowledge sadness goes back a long way. Helen Maria Williams, in 1792, observed that an Englishman “contrives to gain victory over his feelings” rather than crying. The ‘keep calm and carry on’ mentality during the WWI and WWII served to reinforce that false apathy. The idea was that, if everyone pretended they were fine during stressful and traumatic situations, everyone would be fine. That wasn’t the case then, and it’s not the case now.
Rather than making us more resilient, rewarding emotional suppression has damaged our ability to address mental health problems as a society. How did that trickle back to the colonies? Well, Britain was hugely influential to New Zealand right up until the later decades of the 20th century. Likewise with Australia and Canada. And as we took our cues from the motherland, we stopped engaging with our emotions.
This reluctance to engage with emotions is often framed as a male problem. And yes, masculine ideals of toughness and resilience amplify the existing issue. But all New Zealanders can fall into the problematic mindset of staying silent about our problems and concerns. It’s not just men who need help expressing emotions.
If someone asks “How are you?”, my general response is “Pretty good, you?” Unless I’m physically unwell, I won’t disclose what problems I’m having or what kind of stress I’m under. Sure, I talk about my mental health with friends. But not in the casual way that I would mention that I have a cold or I twisted my ankle. If I talk about my mental health, it’s an event. That kind of attitude is exactly the problem.
In 2012, a New Zealand study found that 82% of high school students with mental health problems had not sought professional help. Reluctance to discuss mental health in the same way as physical health drives that statistic; mental health is seen as something that should be hidden, because to admit emotion is to admit weakness. As long as we allow those damaging beliefs to guide us, asking for help will continue to be stigmatised.
Talking is not the silver bullet to fix our mental health problems as a society. More than one solution is required to overcome this mountain of an issue. That said, a reluctance to talk about mental health or emotion is a cultural barrier to seeking help. Normalising mental health conversations allows us to become aware of those around us who need help. Knowing who needs support is the first step towards providing that support. It’s time we relaxed our stiff upper lips and started talking.Support Villainesse