I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my life, and certainly between the ages of 8 and 36 my mental health seemed to dictate what I could and couldn’t do. For a long time I didn’t understand what was happening to me. Crushing sadness that never seemed to leave, panic attacks at the thought of certain academic tasks, psychosomatic illness to avoid school and being bullied. When I finally had a name for what I was experiencing: “mental illness”, I felt the negative stigma and chose to hide it. It was a lonely, isolated existence, and at the age of 19 I started to question why I was even alive.
While this kaupapa is quite heavy, I want to share some personal mental health lessons I’ve picked up over the years and how radically improving my mental health has helped all other aspects of my life to thrive.
I absolutely love this well-known Māori model of health called Te Whare Tapa Whā, designed by Sir Mason Durie in 1984. It relates a person’s wellbeing to a four walled wharenui/meeting house. Each of these four walls represents taha tinana/physical health, taha whānau/social and family wellbeing, taha hinengaro/emotional and mental health, and taha wairua/spiritual wellbeing, with whenua or our connection to the environment forming the foundation of the house.
While I’m not of Māori descent, I treasure this model as it really resonates with my own lived experience of mental health and relationship struggles and their impact on my physical and spiritual wellbeing (and vice versa). This model can apply to all people. The idea that if one aspect of a person’s life is not well, then their overall wellbeing would be impacted is certainly true in my case.
In my late teens I started seeing a psychotherapist, which led to about 15 years of therapy sessions from many different therapists, good, bad, and strange! At times I’ve needed to see them twice a week just to get through, and at other times I’ve gone years between visits. My wonderful parents helped pay for my initial sessions, and later on I was on sickness benefits (due to anxiety) and WINZ funded some more sessions. While I was working in hospitality on minimum wage jobs, I spent a good portion of my earnings each week on my counselling sessions as they were sometimes the only thing keeping me sane. One therapist even let me cook her kids pizza to subsidise my sessions while I was a student!
While I no longer see a therapist, I believe that talking therapy is a really worthwhile thing to do, but it can take a little while to find the right therapist for you. Don’t give up if you don’t connect with your therapist, maybe ask around and see if your friends have any recommendations. I’ve literally seen dozens of therapists depending on where I lived and what stage of life I was in, and I really jelled with my last one. In fact, she was the one who sparked a new possibility by asking me a poignant question: “what if you just didn’t teach next year?”
I fought the idea for a while, with this martyr kind of complex, as if the whole school would fall apart if I wasn’t there. But after a while, the idea filled me with a feeling of incredible freedom. This became the start of my recovery from burnout.
In Aotearoa you are entitled to free or subsidised counselling sessions through WINZ and at least 3 free counselling sessions through the Employment Assistance Programme. If you are a uni student you may also be able to access free counselling depending on where you study. I haven’t been in therapy since 2017 as I’ve discovered another way to develop myself and work through my past. I’ll share more about that in the Taha Whānau / social and family health blog post.
About 5 years ago I was spending $80 a fortnight on counselling and then getting a relaxation massage once every few months. One day my massage therapist gave me the most amazing massage. I felt like I travelled to a peaceful place, had an immense weight lifted off my back, and had some sort of deep healing that went beyond words. I just remember feeling so whole and complete and free of stress, that I made a decision in that moment to replace my counselling sessions with monthly massages. Monthly massages didn’t solve all of my problems, but they did allow regular sweet relief from my stressful life.
What was really important in my massage healing journey was the therapeutic relationship I had with my massage therapist. I trusted her completely, and as soon as I saw her again each month I just felt better. Like my body felt safe and could relax from the moment I stepped in the door. Like finding a counsellor, you may or may not resonate with your massage therapist at first. Its ok, we are drawn to the right people who will be able to support us. So if you are not 100% comfortable with your massage therapist, try another one. And once you are 100% comfortable, hold onto them!
In the early days I tried a bunch of different SSRI’s or anti depressants, with varying results. The first 3 weeks of taking them was the hardest, as the body and mind adjusted to the chemical changes. I often felt more anxious to begin with, which you really have to weigh up when deciding if you are ready to take medication. And it is a choice that’s completely up to you, there is no right or wrong here. I think the key here is to ensure that when you do start on a new course, or change your dose or medication, that you have plenty of other supports in place so help you through the initial rocky road.
The last time I went on anti-depressants was in 2015, when I first started teaching. I was close to quitting my job in term 1 due to feeling completely overwhelmed by my kids and the school’s expectations, and I just remember feeling desperate for some relief from the ever-present anxiety. The meds provided just that. I walked around on a cloud of slightly numb happiness for 3 months, the minimum recommended time, before I slowly came off them. They really helped me get through an incredibly stressful situation, so that I could start to look at other wellbeing strategies and find a way through. I remember talking to my colleagues and was surprised to hear how many of them were also taking SSRI’s to manage their anxiety.
Similarly, exercise has been a massive part of my mental health journey. But I’ll talk more about my journey from a totally unco sports-hater to passionate yogini in the taha tinana/ physical wellness blog post next week.
From the darkest of days in my late teens and hitting rock bottom, things could only go up. Looking back now, I'm grateful that my younger self took my mental health seriously enough to try strategies out, even if they didnt always work. I've had to learn to ask for support, which is a hard thing to do and doesnt come naturally in my individualistic Pākehā culture.
And now, 20 years on, I'm proud to say that I'm free from the anxiety and depression that ruled much of my life.
I hope these snippets of my journey have been good food for thought. Mental health has less of a stigma now, but I feel that it’s still seen as ‘less important’ than real physical health concerns. Like, for example, the challenge of taking a ‘mental health day’. My hope is that one day it will be taken seriously and treated as an integral component of our health, so we can just take a ‘wellbeing day’ when we need it, no questions asked.
Mauri tū, mauri ora
If any of the issues talked about have been challenging and you want some support, here are some additional mental health resources