Reaching out – and reaching in


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Charlotte Dawson’s death has highlighted depression again in NZ. It’s brought out the nasties online and in the news, but it is also reviving an important discussion – how to best assist people around us who are battling. Sarah at WriteHandedGirl posted a very thought provoking blog last month that I only caught up with the other night and I found it quite profound.

People with depression are always told to ‘reach out for help’. I think even I made that not-particularly-helpful-and-cliche remark on my blog on suicide when Bob Jones wrote ‘that editorial’. But I should have thought better, and I’m going to balance that out.

Sarah is so right. A lived experience is indeed a wise one, and I have lived depression too. Every point she makes in that blog is bang on. It is not easy to reach out for help and when you do, you can’t guarantee you’ll get it – from your friends, family, or mental health professionals. She’s also right when she says here about how very well-meaning ads from the Mental Health Foundation etc actually stigmatise people with mental health struggles further by insinuating that we are a bit of a burden who are lucky to find someone who cares. I used to shy away from asking friends for help because they don’t need my pathetic nonsense now, do they Rachael?

Friends, when you see that your friend is struggling, reach in. I’ve had a tough week and friends have made a huge difference to whether I sunk into depression or fought on. Fighting on won.

Below are some experiences that worked in my life when people reached in to care about what I was going through.

They told me that I am always worth talking to, whether I am happy or sad, and that how I’m feeling matters to them.

They acknowledged my sadness, and validated how and why I felt that way. They didn’t minimise, they didn’t compare, they just sat with where I was at.

They didn’t suggest fixes based on what they would do, they asked me what I did to pull myself out last time and reminded me that if I succeeded then, I had it in me to do it again. While this isn’t a magic fix, it does crack a ray of light through the despair – wait a second. You felt this way and got back up, and you can again.

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They checked in with me regularly to see how I was getting on. If a friend goes quiet after a crisis, make contact to see how they are. It shows that you are a friend for the long haul and get that someone who is struggling can’t snap their fingers and be happy again.

They offered assistance. I don’t mean ‘is there anything I can do?’  – we don’t know what you can do really, we’re too busy flogging ourselves and we don’t deserve your help. It depends what role you have in their life – help means different things for local friends, far away friends, internet friends – but in my experience over time it can run from can I visit (don’t get upset if they say no, facing anyone can be hard sometimes) to offering your expertise to help solve a stressful issue, to a long chat on the phone or on Facebook to pull the situation apart and give perspective if you are a trusted confidant. Showing internet friends relevant websites and message boards or looking up local help contacts for them, and in extreme situations ringing services for them has saved many lives.

Many years ago a friend said ‘when did you last eat? Right. I’m going to put some pumpkin soup on your doorstep and I don’t care if you don’t come to the door.’ That was so appreciated! I felt hungry for the first time in days. And they weren’t forcing me to interact with them when I felt I didn’t deserve anyone or anything. But I still knew they cared.

And that’s what it’s all about. When people are struggling, it’s not about hoping they will reach out to you, or someone, or some organisation. It’s about reaching in, too.  About spreading manaaki, awhi, mana and aroha to those who can’t feel it for themselves right now. It really does help restore a person’s faith in themselves and society – if not straight away – when their brain chemicals hit the right levels and they can.

And that’s the last point to remember – people battling with mental health issues are never, ever doing this on purpose. It’s just as much a real issue as any physical disability. End of story.


  1. Yes, that is a good suggestion, to at least try to ‘reach in’ to people. But I think the problem is much, much greater. That can work for people who are KNOWN to suffer from depression and other anxiety disorders, but it does not really work for those that are ANONYMOUS or simply not registered as suffering such illness.

    While we all know of some famous people now, who suffered depression at various stages in their lives, most people out there are NOT known to you and me, and that poses a major challenge.

    There are so many people, who have few friends, who may have lost contact even with their parents and siblings, and due to the high level of individualism (often also combined with consumerism, competitive behaviour at all levels, and with the omnipresent commercialism), more and more people live as singles, or in very loose networks they may have left. Some will also not like to expose their illness, and many do not even tell their GP, as they fear lack of understanding, negative feedback and so forth.

    I am afraid that most people still have very little understanding of mental illness, and that there are many varying degrees of it.

    What certainly does also NOT help is, to have the very state agencies, that are supposed to “help” and support people in need, and I count many mental health sufferers to them, are in too many cases not even accepting medical certificate information as they should.

    We have now a “relentless focus on work”, as Paula Bennett has trumpeted about so much, since the formulation and introduction of the Future Focus policies, we have since mid last year a new welfare regime, where many with illnesses and conditions are now being continually re-assessed, more than ever before, because the whole CRITERIA for qualifying for certain support has be reformulated. It is now all based on what people hypothetically “can do”, rather than what they “cannot do”, and much of the new approach is based on supposed “scientific findings” coming mostly from the UK (and with that one peculiar “research centre” in Cardiff), which has been brought here also, by one Professor Mansel Aylward. His theories, based on a re-interpreted “bio psycho social model” include claims like “work is basically good for health”, and that most illness is rather based on “illness belief”.

    The Principal Health Advisor of MSD and WINZ, a Dr David Bratt, has like some others fully adopted that virtual “ideology” (as insufficiently backed up), and he likens to compare benefit dependence to “drug dependence”.

    As happened in the UK, this has led to MSD and WINZ now tending to challenge many “work capability medical assessments” by ordinary GPs of clients, and expecting endless more “evidence” that people actually suffer from what they and their GP may claim. So we will soon have outsourced medical and work capability assessments done for WINZ, which seem to follow the ATOS approach in the UK. That has had disastrous consequences, causing a lot of serious harm to thousands, some self harming themselves and worse.

    While most with such illnesses would love to work, throwing them on the competitive open job market may in some cases do more damage than good though.

    I see that this government is doing nothing much at all, to put money and actions where their mouths are, and are instead just creating yet more pressures and fear for the ones already struggling with depression and many other conditions.

    That whole new approach must be challenges and seriously looked at, as it is simply lacking credibility. More on that is found here, for those that have not already informed themselves:

    So when are WINZ staff going to be trained to be more mindful, respectful and reasonable, and “reach in”, where it may be required? Knowing that Dr David Bratt has been training his Regional Health and Disability Advisors at WINZ to make recommendations, often based on flawed designated doctors decisions, I fear that there is little consideration given to the true needs of many, some of whom also potentially being misdiagnosed.

    Apart from that, we must all become more observant, considerate and “humane” again, and perhaps start talking with each other again, which seems to be something too many are no longer bothering with, apart from general, superficial work- and small-talk.

  2. I agree totally. When I finished the above, I started talking about the breakdown of society and community and the problems that this has caused for those who struggle, but it was 11.30pm, I didn’t want to take away from the focus of what I had said, and decided that side of things were worth a separate blog.

    • No problem Rachael, you’ve done a great job posting what you did, and it is stuff that should get us all thinking about mental illness, who maybe in whatever way affected at whatever time in their lives.

      Potentially there are many people we meet and see every day, who may, or have at some time, suffered mental health issues, possibly quite serious ones. I have met a fair few, and I have myself gone through some dreadful periods in life.

      Sharing and talking about it, and reaching out and in, that is important, and it deserves more publicity and discussion, as the MSM tend to mostly only focus on headline stuff, that may be about some more prominent and well-known people.

      They could do better by informing more widely on such issues.

  3. “Reaching out” can be a death sentence. It has caused more problems for me than depression itself. Professionals, friends, family … it doesn’t matter. You become invalid in every respect. For me personally, remaining silent and developing inner strength has been the only effective form of treatment, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

    • MURRAY SMITH – you raise a valid consideration and concern there! Indeed, reaching out can have unexpected, negative consequences. I have experienced that myself. Some people can be trusted, but even many “friends” show their true “face”, when you confide to them your inner troubles. It will often show who is a true friend, and who is not, and true friends are rather rare.

      Also having grown up in a family that has clung to behaviour and attitudes with the “stiff upper lip” and “harden up” approach, and with the critical view of “others can do, why can you not?”, there was little support I ever got there.

      Last not least, we know that many working in mental health may have gone into that field of the health sector, to genuinely help people, but the systems they work under, are dictating to them to deliver “quick solutions” and “output” based results, that mean, the patients do not necessarily get what they need.

      Many psychiatrists are merely there to administer medication, many psychologists are working for agencies and services with limited resources, so they have too many to deal with, and give persons handouts to read, and websites to consult, to try and help themselves. Many counsellors are wanting to be paid well, and if you have not got the money, you cannot even get help there. WINZ usually only pays for a limited time, and often not even the full costs. Administrators dictate, who can get access to what service, and so we have many just get some superficial, insufficient outpatient care, that leaves too many to drop through the gaps and end up in renewed crisis.

      While you have been able to help yourself, which is commendable, sadly many are not capable of this.

      I see far too many shortcomings in mental health care and support in New Zealand, and hence we continue to have many self harm, harm others, or self medicate with drugs and alcohol (the popular “legal” drug).

      Under this government many services face caps and cuts, and that is because elective surgery results and higher statistics there just make the bulk of voters feel happier. Most may not suffer mental health issues, so they are not too moved by our concerns.

      So much more needs to be done. Best wishes to you!

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