New Zealand's young activists need to step up for mental health

Gemma Major Stuff Seed Waikato.jpg, 8 April 2018

Guns have been a deadly blind spot for the United States, that is until millennials took notice. But according to reporter Ruby Nyika, New Zealand has it's own failings that young people are only just waking up to. 

OPINION: At 24, I'm part of that paleo-dieting, selfie-taking, green-smoothie-drinking generation.

But I'm also of the generation of crippling student loans, daily cocktails of antidepressants, a near-impossible housing market and that ruthless beast that is social media.

We were the generation given participation medals for everything we did and were never taught to acknowledge failure. 

And I can't count the number of peers I hear sheepishly admitting to experiences with anxiety or depression, confided like an ugly secret.

The March for Our Lives in support of tighter gun control that took place on March 24 saw something like a million people take to the streets of Washington DC and more than 800 cities and towns around the US and internationally.  

What began as a grassroots reaction to the horrific shooting of 17 students at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida could finally make a lasting change to gun control in the US, where thousands of people have lost their lives because of the accessibility of guns.

It seemed government after government ignored the devastation, and continued to line their pockets with money from the National Rifle Association.

These protesting youths, led by the survivors of the Florida school shooting, are finally saying what the rest of the world is thinking.

But let's not be too smug, New Zealand.

We don't just have one blind spot of our own. We have 606.

In the 2016-17 fiscal year, 606 people killed themselves. We also have the highest rate of youth suicide in the developed world.

And in the past three years, that figure has just got worse.

Yearly, mental health problems kill hundreds more than do road crashes.

The Government's mental health inquiry, alongside the subsequent suggestion that there should be a 'zero tolerance of suicides in services' is at least three years too late. 

Like guns, it is killing us – so, where are we, all of us who are in the millennial generation?  Because here in New Zealand, we're not taking to the streets. Why don't Kiwi millennials push to be heard on an issue that desperately needs attention? 

Maybe young adults are wary of our reputation as whiny, pseudo-activist clods, and don't want to reinforce it.

That is sad, because adults between 20 and 24 recorded the highest number of suicide deaths, with 79 swallowed by a failed mental health system over the last recorded year. 

Last year, Jacinda Ardern said climate change is her generation's "nuclear power moment". 

She's right – climate change is the big one. 

But it's global and it's not really a blind spot anymore. Everyone (barring the odd climate change-denying loon) knows it's an issue that could see us under water one day. 

Right now, our crumbling mental health is equally insidious. 

And for years we've swept it under the carpet, both in our decision-making and household conversations.

Activist Gemma Major who co-founded Seed Waikato, a group designed to connect young adults – is no stranger to the issue. She has battled drug addictions, among other problems. But being an addict meant she was eligible for 16 months of funded addiction support.

Major says after the discounted counselling sessions – typically four to 10 – most young people are left with no support other than an 0800 number to call in times of crisis, because they can't afford to pay $160 a pop.

Major says the counselling changed her life. "But not everybody has access to those services, which breaks my heart. And it kind of perpetuates a bigger problem."

A lack of professional help for those with mild or moderate depression or anxiety suggests they're not worth attention until it reaches desperation stage.

"It is challenging for people to get that support with earlier signs of mental distress.

"Once you get hospitalised, you have a medical team around you. But that lead-up to that – there is a real crisis in this country around getting adequate support services before it gets too big.

"I don't want to use the word crisis lightly.

"We can't keep waiting for it to get to somebody committing suicide or being hospitalised. That's not OK."

And that is the crux of it. We need to stop pouring money into the the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and tackle those early stages of mental illness.

It's no secret – the Government knows it's a problem and could be putting measures into place that are preventative, or at least tackle the issue in the early stages. 

It's 2018 – we know mental illness doesn't always mean traipsing, dead-eyed, through a psych ward in a hospital gown. 

Yet, when someone kills themselves and their smiling picture circulates social media, the sentiment is often the same: "But they seemed so happy".

Every depressed or anxious person should be addressed as an emergency in the making. Because when professional help isn't readily available it must feel like an impossible pill to swallow for anyone, but especially for a generation lacking coping skills. 

Jess Featherstone can hardly remember the two months after her 23-year-old best friend's suicide in 2016.

Liam Phillips – who went to a private school and had a great family – had suffered crippling anxiety for years.

It wasn't a secret that he was struggling, he had been hospitalised just days before he died.  

Even in the hours before his death, he assured Featherstone he was feeling better and felt things were improving.

He even spoke with family about how excited he was to watch the football the next day.

"To this day, we don't know what happened." 

But he slipped through cracks that shouldn't have been there, she says. 

"I'd want to ask him the usual – what I could have done. I'd want to know what anyone could have done, actually." 

I won't pretend to know exactly what needs to happen, but we need to put the pedal on. 

As the Government's mental health inquiry drags on this year, numbers could keep creeping up. 

It might be naivete showing, but for me the answer isn't rocket science. We need funded face-to-face clinical support for people unable to afford it themselves. 

An 0800 number clearly isn't enough – it must be hard to confide in the disembodied voice of a person you've never met and will probably never speak to again. 

Most people struggling - low income, rural and younger people – simply can't afford to spend thousands on professional help. 

And we millennials should stop shying away from making a fuss.

We should take a leaf out of the gun-law-rallying American youth – there's something to be said for being an outraged millennial. 

Because the stoic, Kiwi thing hasn't worked for those 606 blind spots.


Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757

Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116

Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Youthline (open 24/7) - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email

0800 WHATSUP children's helpline - phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day.

Kidsline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.

Your local Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Alcohol Drug Help (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.

For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).