WAMU – a new political force…farce

Weeks on from the Green Party leadership kerfuffle, I’m still reeling and wondering about the deeper philosophical implications for future politics. Naaah fuck it…time to take (hypothetical) action.

I’m keen to start a new political party, but I have some strong beliefs about what it will take for anyone to join me. The We’ve All Messed Up (WAMU) is not for the faint hearted. While other parties frantically bury their indiscretions, anyone wishing to represent WAMU will be expected to have fucked up in the past. In fact if your history shows a squeaky clean record from your late teens to early 30’s I’d be suspicious.

WAMU is focussed on playing the issues not the person (the equivalent of playing the ball not the player in football – it’s a dirty tactic). Our fuck ups will be the first thing the public will know about us. As its possible leader, I am proud to say my shenanigans did lead to be booked by police, protesting. We put up flyers before a big rugby game in Dunedin indicating the link between domestic violence, alcohol use and rugby. I was involved in numerus fees protests, in the early 90’s. I took out a student loan and spent some of it on a mountain bike! I gave people free hair-cuts with my clippers with absolutely no training. I smoked marijuana and yes I did bloody inhale and it was fantastic – just really bad for the food budget. One flat had a kids play house out the back and a friend stayed in it for a few months, and yeah the landlord found out and wasn’t happy. I also lied about my religion in the census one year, I said I was a jedi but I have to confess, I’m only a padawan – busted! So there – plenty of stuff that would tarnish my potential to run for any current political party.

WAMU understands that taking risks, pushing the rules and at times breaking them is healthy. Being afraid to get it wrong and always obeying authority is not freedom – it is totalitarianism. Much like all those people salivating over the demise of Meteria Turei calling for her to be tarred and feathered or hung drawn and quartered – well – maybe the 21st century version, it’s the same mentality – fear based politics.

WAMU is calling out to ordinary people and those up there on their high horses to climb down for a moment and get real about the messiness of life. I feel sorry for young politicians – trapped having to keep that squeaky clean image up, fear not – WAMU will be there when your rebellious phase finally hits, we will embrace you should your party turn its back. Our party mandate will be simple: The past present and future all matter but only two of these we have the ability to influence while the other serves as a platform to launch from. The best foundations for this platform are life experiences that push the normative codes of society.

WAMU – giving the middle finger to petty personal politics and promoting palm in face practices to prevent pathetic pompus pricks perpetuating pretentious policies.

(disclaimer…I needed to ‘p’).

Not another statistic

It’s been a sobering week. I love my job, but it is bloody hard sometimes. It’s one of those moments I dread  as a school counsellor, hearing that a young person you have supported has taken their own life. I’ve been through this before, thankfully not a lot but it never gets easier. I’m sad, angry and frustrated – sometimes things do not get better! Yet this is what we tend to tell people, it will get better…what if it doesn’t? I reflected all week, trying not to give in to despair. I think something left unanswered is just how much emphasis there is on the individual ‘getting help’. I’ve said it before – expecting people to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society is not the answer. Somehow – my grief is more a profound sense of inevitability, a hollow aching grief that ‘it didn’t get better’ – we were served notice, but will anyone take notice of the larger systemic and societal shifts that need to enable people to want to stay checked in to this life.

We live in a time where showing compassion, love and vulnerability are seen as weakness. Where harshness, hate, separation, fear and rejection are normal. It is especially sad when these ideas become part of systems meant to support our most vulnerable – in an election year, this seems even more evident and strangely indicative of a profoundly sick system, more intent on point scoring.

While it never gets easy hearing about young people checking out, I know that suffering and feeling in continual pain is no quality of life. The tragedy is we have yet to create an abundance of love, acceptance, inclusion, safety and respect for children and young people. This is a level of social and cultural poverty that I find deeply offensive and will continue to challenge.

Joining the dots

I’ve been following the NZ herald series on suicide, not closely, working as a school counsellor gives me some insight to the phenomenon but I am always cautious about my own understanding, even with close to 15yrs experience. But the Herald series is a bit like throwing out a series of dots from which people can join to form a picture. Here is where I’m a little unsure just which dots are standing out, how they are being joined and what picture/s are emerging. It’s tragic, compelling, emotive and unfortunately political. The dots could be seen as key ideas, some backed by research, others personal experiences, experts like (Sir) Peter Gluckman are mixed in with Mike King. Much like a join the dots activity I did as a kid, if there are just a few dots they have to be joined carefully and in the correct order to get the picture, more dots gives more detail. Sometimes you didn’t need to see the numbers to join them correctly – but at other times connecting the 2 with 8 really threw things off and you got a duck instead of a bunny. And this is where I think some of the discussion on suicide has gone – into duckbunny land.

I’ve read Gluckman’s report, it’s worth reading but how many people will actually bother to pick up his dots? He suggests the key work needs to be done much earlier than secondary schools, but also that adolescents is a vulnerable period regardless. There is a link between communities that have a low sense of worth, less hope for a future. I am saddened at the risk for Maori and other communities such as LGBTQI+ youth, this is where I think schools continue to ignore the dots and avoid responsibility for creating safe, genuinely inclusive (including bi-cultural values) environments. When principals deny queer young people safe places to meet (i.e. not allowing students to form gay-straight alliances), be valued members of the community– they increase risk. When schools fail to provide trained, qualified counsellors because pastoral care is not seen as valued – risk increases.

You see a couple of dots that people keep ignoring or leaving off the page, is the spike in suicide with the rolling out of ‘Tomorrows Schools’ when secondary schools could opt to not have counsellors in favour of the rather vague idea of ‘providing adequate guidance’ – and there are so many weird, vague interpretations of this. Key also is the gradual rising of the school leaving age, with university entrance now requiring completing level 3 (7th form for old school people). So if a young person is able to consent to their own medical treatment at 16, surely we should be enabling them to access mental health support as well, and schools that do not employ trained counsellors deny young people a potential lifeline.

Because every day, I talk to young people who have lost hope, who feel adults they have turned to have freaked out, got angry, dismissed, not believed them or blamed them for what is going on. They have thought about suicide, might be ready to die, but they somehow managed to get to my office. They aren’t making this shit up, they are survivors of bullying, sexual abuse, rape, family violence, they are from all cultures, they are LGBTQI+ and they had a free resource available, a fence at the top of the cliff – a trained, qualified, professionally affiliated counsellor.

It’s election year though, so I say this to all politicians – Stop ignoring these dots because they do not fit your convenient picture. Make a commitment to resourcing schools and agencies at the coal face of this work. Stop political point scoring around education, especially with vulnerable populations. No more dots are needed, just draw the lines FFS.

Choice Uniform

Ok, its been a while since I blogged and I am probably going to piss people off or take the warm fuzzy glow off something that most people are seeing as a move in the right direction when it comes to enabling flexibility of gender expression in schools. My Facebook feed went crazy a few days ago with the story of the Dunedin intermediate school that was eliminating gendered uniforms. This move is seen as revolutionary, some sort of highland fling needs doing as kilts and skirts blend boys and girls in a new gender neutral utopia that allows students to freely express themselves.

I want to be excited ‘yay’. I want to be optimistic ‘maybe other schools will do it now’, I want to be supportive ‘it’s important’. Right, now that I’ve got that out of the way – time to get realistic and bit more critical for the sake of actual change. So stop reading now if you want the warm fuzzy version.

Has this school actually done anything earth shattering? No. They are talking about adding long pants as an option and culottes, which are about as functional as stubbies. If guys choose to wear a kilt…it’s a kilt, not a skirt…duh. This is the same as wearing any other form of cultural dress. Get guys in culottes and then I’ll be impressed.

There is no such thing as gender neutral – because neutral is masculinised – pants or shorts. So what we are talking about is not feminising or enabling feminine expression. KILTS ARE NOT SKIRTS!

It is an intermediate – these are still ‘kids’ – show me a high school – or better a single sex school that does this and I will be convinced, more so if it’s a boys school.

If people think students now have ‘freedom’ to choose – think again, the gender norms still apply and when boys can grow their hair long, girls can cut theirs short and not shave their legs and it be ok – THAT is the other uniform rule that has to be broken. When a girl can wear short hair and not be asked if she is a boy or a girl that will be the sign of change.

Finally – a truly radical move from schools in New Zealand these days is to NOT have a uniform. I went through primary and intermediate without a uniform, I think I am ok as a result. Show me a school that moves from uniform to no uniform and that will be radical and ground breaking

Uniforms perpetuate the idea of gender, regardless of flexibility – there is still an absent but implicit assumption that there are feminine and masculine uniforms.But good on ya Dunedin North Intermediate for listening to students, that is worth celebrating. but wait until you guys get a good southerly up those kilts and I reckon there will be a quick run at the uniform shop for pants. And no modern uniform should have culottes they are worse than gender neutral they are gender dysfunctional.

 

Spoke Too Soon

Well I thought 2016 couldn’t get any weirder then Lance Armstrong slips into NZ. Poor Lance, he probably had no idea that Kiwis pride themselves on having an opinion on everything – but especially anything to do with the USA. I’d hedge a bet that people here know the American constitution better than the Treaty Of Waitangi.

I’ve followed cycling and triathlon since my teens and Lances career fell in step with my own timeline, although that is about as far as the connection goes. One exception, we have both ridden with Cameron Brown, legend in NZ sport and probably one of the most respected athletes in his field of Ironman. In truth I was a sucker for Lance, read the books, had the wrist band…and I vehemently defended him when people said he couldn’t have won without drugs. But I suspect I’m like many people who had to wake up and smell the EPO.

So…here’s the thing. Lance is here to do business. He is going to be in a commercial for Lion Breweries. He’s probably going to be paid a shitload of money. He’s going to ride his bike with a select group of elite riders and do a jaunt around the water front with others. Good for him, there is nothing about his trip that is remotely about putting things right with people he screwed over as a professional cheat. There are good, hard working, ethical people out there, like Stephen Swart who’s careers were absolutely destroyed by this guy.

I get that people think he has paid his dues, and we should all move on. I get that people respect his charity work. I get that Cam Brown wanted to ride with Lance and for his son to meet him, Lance should have been equally as impressed but somehow I doubt the papers in the US will devote any attention to his jaunt down under. But Cameron…dude…lets get real. Lance is a megalomaniac who sacrificed other’s lives to get where he got to, people are probably going to feel strongly about you hanging out with the guy. Putting it out there on social media and not expecting a shit storm of opinion is naive at best. No, I am not a ‘hater’ – I understand my discomfort with sociopathic behaviour. No Rick Wells – he is not an ‘axe murderer’ but he certainly slashed and burned his way to the top, no one physically died but there has been plenty of other kinds of carnage left in his slip stream. It’s not about who has a right to comment – cyclists or not – this guy stands for something more than sport now, and that is why ‘associating’ or being with Lance is never going to be outside of the past. And there are other more respected commentators who share a similar perspective.

You see, I respectfully disagree with people who say he has been punished and we should all ‘forgive’…if not forget. Natural justice is just that – there are consequences beyond sanctions imposed. To have broken trust so intentionally and without genuine remorse for such a long time and in such a grandiose and public way means Lance will have to do more than pedal a few kms, pose for photo ops and turn up when it suits him. Coz that’s the point – this is still a narcissist masquerading as the knight in shining armor, every decision he makes is what is good for him. When in reality it’s tarnished and the polished act is started to mirror only what people choose to see. Again, if people only want to see his ‘good side’ his redemption – fine, but that does not mean the damage has been repaired, and that is what I think a lot of people are calling for – but could perhaps articulate that with a little less vitriol.

The US only has room for one megalomaniac and he is sitting in the big chair. Who knows maybe there is a spot at the round table for Sir Lance Lies-a-lot in Trumps fantasy of world domination. He’s a good spinner, knows how to win at all costs. Perhaps politics is his natural calling. Although if he had to true his own political wheels, I suspect the delicate turn of nuts might not be his thing and the wobbles might give way to the odd lose spoke.

Wonder if Steve Swart got his phone call…I feel a Bieber song is appropriate here.

Quaking up

A week of *shaking

Fear, shock and anger

Fault lines drawn and blame jolting and dislodging people from places

Disbelief – people never saw it coming

The quiet tension building, opposing forces strain

Rumbling, grumbling, giving way, a landslide

Staring in disbelief as the numbers come in grief and shock wondering when it will stop

Ground giving way seeking safety and shelter

Isolation communities divided

Assessing the damage and strengthening supports but still the aftershocks

Salvaging hope in the ruins of familiar structures

Some may need to go, be torn down, too unstable and uncertain

But the doubt creeps in, what is deep underground hidden and unknown

As the pieces are picked up and the rebuilding begins

Analysis, understanding, awareness, this no comfort for many

Shattered lives and lives still on edge a daily call to know more, to understand to do it better to survive and thrive together

(*The political world wide quake of the US elections and Culverton-Kaikoura earthquake this week)

 

I’m out

Suicide is a sensitive topic and the media has bravely gone there with gusto over the last few weeks. I understand why, NZ leads the OECD – our stats are nothing to be proud of. People are desperate to know why, to work on prevention, to fix this epidemic, to grow resilience, to start conversations that make space for people to express their feelings.

All important steps. All these things need to happen, and schools do need better resourcing. Which is why it still baffles me that trained, qualified counsellors are not a requirement in our schools. That there is no mandatory requirement or ratio. There are recommendations and guidelines but given the seriousness of the need the government and MOE need to rethink their ‘hands off’ approach to mental health and well-being in schools.

You see it all comes down to section 77 of the Education Act which states.

“the principal of a State school shall take all reasonable steps to ensure that … students get good guidance and counselling”

It does not say how this will be delivered or provided. And many schools under financial constraints deem non-teaching staff too costly. So while some schools have trained counsellors, they might be split between multiple roles.  Many schools have no trained counsellors. I’d like to see the government take the lead for once instead of hiding behind notions of self-governance. Young people deserve better than ‘good guidance and counselling’. But I’m still not satisfied.

As someone working on the front line I have a privileged access to what pushes young people to the edge and to consider the option of being ‘out’ of existence. While I addressed many of these in a previous blog I want to mention something of the chronic despair I am noticing – regardless of individual circumstances such as bullying, abuse, struggles with identity, connection, emotional distress. I think it speaks to a generation who are very aware of social, political, environmental and economic circumstances.

Some young people are looking at a world in crisis and going WTF? They cannot just find their way in the world as they go – they are expected to have it all sorted out by the time they are 15-16, to make all the right choices at the right times. They are saturated with the problems of the world and told they are the hope for the future. FFS society is holding a gun to their heads and telling them to enjoy the thrill! Some young people recognise how sick the system is that perpetuates the cycle – the monetary system, the neo-liberal capitalist drive to consume at all costs. The systems of fear and division and they are like ‘I’m out’. Suicide is not just about individuals – it is about creating the conditions on which staying alive is worth it!

To me this is the greatest challenge facing society – to look at suicide as more than an individual choice, but a about a systemic failure to create a world worth being in, a world where young people say ‘I’m in’.

Time out! What century is it?

A couple of days ago I blogged about Mental Health Awareness week and schools. I vowed to stop reading the Herald online on account of the atrocious grammar, like someone had their cat walk on their keyboard and randomly cut and paste things half the time, but I risk it now and again. The article I read had my head in a spin, a surge of adrenaline as the fury rose in my body indicated I should not read on, but I did.

This time the grammar held up, it was the content. Children being locked in a small, dark time out room for behaviour management, put into isolation. Now that had me burning for a start, then to find out some of those put into that space were on the Autistic spectrum just turned my anger into a form of transcendent hysteria. To finish me off the dismissive minimising language and rhetoric claiming it was not illegal just ‘outmoded’ and the Ministry of Educations response was about as strong as Donald Trumps credibility as a feminist.

Honestly I have absolutely no hesitation is stating this is nothing but abuse disguised as behaviour management. There is nothing about this practice that is about reducing distress, learning, care or compassion. It speaks to the gross lack of training, understanding and resourcing of education for complex needs. I’m sure some of those teachers thought there was nothing wrong with what they were doing, that is what worries me. There are students who will have challenges regulating emotions and behaviour because of abusive backgrounds or unique neurocognitive functioning, that’s called diversity. Being locked in dark spaces as punishment to experience more distress, fear and isolation is barbaric and totally deplorable. The MOE needed to say that, rather than its ‘monitoring the situation’. WTF is that? We’ll, pay someone, to interview some people to hire a consultant to write a report…

Meanwhile what about that room? I say, it needs to be turned into the only thing it is good for at this point, given its size is fish tank and Lego room. Students might happily go there to find some peace and quiet away from the crazy chaotic over stimulating real world. They might even paint a ‘do not disturb’ sign. I need that room now.

 

Spotlight on Mental Health

Next week is mental health awareness week and I’m already anxious. It’s also the first week back of the term and part of me is bracing for the inevitable leap onto the treadmill at full pace, desperately grabbing for the handrails of coffee and the sturdy support of my colleagues. Being a counsellor in a large secondary school is complex and next week puts the spotlight firmly on our area of work, but it’s one that I think is too directional and follows only certain players on the mental health stage.

I’m anticipating the light to fall on anxiety, depression, suicide, as well as debates around diagnosis, medication and looking for warning signs. There might be some promotion of strategies for coping with stress, mindfulness, and lots of other positive psychology techniques. It’s a life-coaches smorgasbord and while I respect there are a lot of good people doing great things to support people to live happy fulfilled lives there are some things that bother me greatly about the intense focus on western concepts of mental health and the mind as well as the emphasis on individual responsibility for managing your own wellness. The effect of the spotlight is to reduce mental health down to brain chemistry, managing emotional states (where some emotions are deemed not healthy) and a checklist of tasks.

So I want to scatter the light, diffract it if you will through some uncomfortable contexts that in my line of work are all too frequent yet avoided in public conversations. It’s a little like poverty – people prefer to see something about the lack of personal management of money or make it about some failure in individual people. There is the pervasive believe everyone can be well off if they just tried hard enough. Mental health is similar.

Some themes I’ve encountered in my 20 years working in schools that I think need to be considered as much as discussions about depression etc:

  • Family violence is traumatic – whether it be physical, verbal, psychological, sexual and it happens!
  • Sexual abuse is traumatic for all people and it happens across cultures and genders
  • Adults rarely think about how the ways they speak to their children and about them impacts on their well-being – we’ve had generations of values that suggest put-downs, harsh language, smacking and basically denigrating children and young people is good for their character. The other end of the spectrum is also unhelpful both are harmful for developing balance
  • Few adults say ‘I’m sorry’ to their children and take responsibility for their actions
  • Bullying happens in families first and in other community settings, not just schools – young queer people of all cultures are often more exposed to this
  • Trauma impacts on the brain – especially a developing brain, but also adult brains (see my blog on the limbic system). Young people can experience post traumatic stress (PTS) just like adults.
  • Young people are resilient but they need adults to listen and BELIEVE THEM when they talk about abuse and support for who they are as people
  • There is an expectation to be happy 24/7 these days – normal responses to grief, loss, stress are being lost to medicalisation – thanks google
  • The future is uncertain rather than bright for many young people – schools are also very stressful places. NCEA requires them to be on their game for 3 years! Good grief people of my generation came out of hibernation for about 3 weeks for exams. That level of sustained pressure is not good for anyone (including teachers).

Finally we need to critique the separation of mind and body and recognise that this is simply one way of viewing people and might not be the most useful in the 21st Century. Bringing in the range of spectrums of perspectives from other cultures could enable new conversations that move beyond the single white spot that is white western health concepts that leave many in the dark, isolated and invisible.

Age old question

I’ve been trying to figure out what this aging thing is. I can see visible signs of age, the strands of hair becoming tinsilated, the smile lines etching deeper as do the frown lines although I’m hoping to have less of those. But I’m perplexed by the idea of being my age-gender and I’m wondering about the relationship as well as some intriguing possibilities this offers my penchant for messing with embodiment in general.

It came to me as I looked through photographs of me as a kid, class photos where I might have blended in as one of the boys. And then looking at people in their 70’s and above and also struggling at times to see the bodily clues that define male and female. It occurs to me that past a certain age men’s bodies become pulled toward female and female toward male. I know biology and physiology has a lot to do with this but here is a thought – why fight it? Here is my radical revision of aging-gender.

I’m not sure how this would work but imagine if you get to 60 and your body is changing shape with lumps and bumps moving, again it could be that illnesses such as cancer take hold of particular parts that have significance for identifying the common bodily sexual features (I realise this is a sensitive issue – I am not suggesting mastectomy’s and cancer treatment aren’t traumatic or any other form of body part removal, testicle, ovary) there might be an option to ‘go with the flow’. Doctors could offer hormone treatment to help keep that flow going rather than trying to turn back the clock. Society could create a new form of ceremony or ritual celebration (optional of course) where preferred names and pronouns are used openly.

What is interesting is there is little question about youth enhancing their cis-gendered bodies along normative gender lines. There are plenty of industries willing to increase sizes of particular parts. But when nature gives you the base ingredients to transition, why not make it easier. All I hope for is that I can still ride a bike, surf, skate, and that my pants maintain a waistline that is closer to my hips than my neck.