• Tue, 4, Dec, 2018 - 5:00:AM

Thank the British for our reluctance to talk about mental health

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.


  • Mental Health /
  • History /
  • Emotions /
  • Colonisation /
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Comments ( 1 )

  • Paulmclark's picture

    Paulmclark - Tue, 2018-12-04 18:32

    While this compelling article highlights the massive problems with mental health issues in New Zealand, I believe it is deeply flawed from two main points of view. First you suggest that post-colonial societies (NZ, Australian and Canada) have high suicide rates because they all share the similarity of being former British Colonies. Next, you refer to historical evidence of the "British stiff upper lip" from as far back as the Georgian period up until WW2, which was three generations ago. You go on to say that former British colonies have taken their queues from this British attitude, with no consideration that cultures and ideologies have changed massively since WW2. Britain, whilst pretty conservative in many respects, has actually come a long way if we compare our mental health situation with NZ. Firstly, Britain has arrived into the 21st Century - something that New Zealand desperately needs to do if it is to address its mental health problems. Most British men no longer have the whole "stiff upper lip" as you refer to (I think you may have restricted your reading to Austen, Woolf or Dickens). Many have seen that attitude of their post-war fathers and rejected it as a way to behave. The value of being open is far more recognized in the UK than in the southern hemisphere, where the "she'll be right" culture flourishes without the influence of the progressive situation in Europe. I think this article highlights a lot of important issues, but to say that this inability to properly address mental health issues is a hangover from a colonial past is simply passing the buck and looking for an explanation that, quite frankly, is way off the mark. You might also want to consider the fact that the countries you name (NZ, Australia, Canada) share another similarity - they all have significant indigenous populations who have been screwed over since the first white (and probably British) people arrived. You can blame colonialism for that, but NZ, Australia and Canada have done very little to support those populations since the end of British rule and continue to treat those communities as second class citizens. That's pretty damaging. And statistically, suicide rates amongst indigenous populations are catastrophic. You can probably tell - I'm British. I'm not jingoistic by any stretch and I blame British colonialism, and now American colonialism, for most of the wrongs in the world today - but your argument is far too simplistic. On a personal level, I was never brought up in the way that I've witnessed many Kiwi young men to be brought up. I was taught to talk about my problems. Empathy and compassion were important to me. Reaching out and getting help was always a recognisable option. The mental health services in the UK are far from perfect, but that's more to do with the ridiculous Tory government and their refusal to fund state-programmes - another argument. However, when compared with the situation in New Zealand, I'm afraid the UK is streets ahead, both culturally and ideologically. I would suggest that, if there is any hangover from colonial Britain, it is the kiwi refusal to break free from the yoke of Victorianism, something which I believe pervades this country in abundance, and meet the 21st Century head on. The stiff upper lip might have applied to a character in a Jane Austen novel - but we're more Irvine Welsh now!!
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