individualism

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.

Drowning sorrows

About a year ago I wrote a piece about the need for Kiwis to move on from the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude when it comes to water safety. I’m talking adult responsibility here, and I might even add driving, drinking and sex to the list of things we’d rather not talk about or simply assume this thing called ‘common sense’ will offer some guidance and protection. I’m wondering what all these things have in common and what aspects are unique or perhaps not so easy to make sense of. With four possibly five people drowning in just a single 24hr period it’s more than a personal tragedy it’s a question of relationships that go beyond individuals and notions of responsibility.

In terms of a philosophical shift in ‘where the buck stopped’ the move from God to the individual happened a while back (more commonly referred to as the Age of Enlightenment – although there are always shadows) and we’re still trying to figure out what that actually looks like in practice. We’ve made some reasonable steps in terms of recognising what chronological age might limit and we probably over cooked the gender thing at times. But the idea of connection and taking care of others has mutated into a ‘them and us’ separation with ‘them’ also incurring some form of repellent type shield protecting ‘us’ from any sense of care or even interaction. The emerging apathy becoming more a form of collective sociopathy. This is what concerns me and I don’t think we need another advertising campaign, or philanthropist chucking money at it.

What I do think (for what it’s worth) is if people can reconnect with a sense of community and connection regardless of the amount of length of time that community remains together, then ‘care taking’ might take on a more active and interactive form. A group at the beach, a line of traffic, a park, dance party, festival, these are ‘pop-up’ communities. In a way what probably needs to happen is something similar to what has occurred with technology where relationship have adapted and changed. Part of the hang up is about the meaning of ‘individual’ and ‘response-ability’. The idea of caring about others needs a 21st Century reboot, a decent ‘control-alt-delete’ jolt from Western metaphysical defaults – especially the Cartesian split.

Keeping others and ourselves safe from harm is an ethic, one that is sometimes a matter a life and death. Let’s talk about it and say hi to each other as a first step. Be safe out there – I care.

Return of the village people

I just know some of you are quietly singing YMCA, In The Navy or Macho Man, it’s alright to bust a move – I could never get the ‘C’ in the right direction. This eclectic and iconic group made adult dress up permissible. Thank you Village People, but what village did you come from?

Cities are strange places for those of us who grew up in towns or villages. When I think about the population of New Zealand creeping up to the 5 million mark, I realise how ‘village like’ we are compared to other more densely populated countries. But does ‘size matter?’ when it comes to developing a closer sense of community.

Growing up in a town of 4000 in the 70’s and 80’s had some special effects on me. When I tell people where I was born they sometimes look at me and their expression usually mirrors a mix of pity and surprise, as if I have overcome some terrible obstacle in my life.
I like returning home, hanging at the local markets and seeing who I might run into, kind of like a High School reunion but without the weirdness. Those connections no matter how long I have been away still feel strong because of the unique nature of how those relationships develop. But I believe those factors can be replicated in large cities because despite their overall population, people generally have a ‘local community.’ At the very least, neighbours! I’ve noticed more and more city dwellers embracing and valuing simple acts of kindness, conversation and reaching out that dissolve the sense of wariness and need for complete anonymity at all times – even from their Doctor (joking).

What are some of the ways this is happening? How can you get some small town magic in your life? Here are a few tips, but be warned – it comes cheap. Yes you heard right – it is easy and free.

1: First of all define your ‘community’ it might be the street, block or suburb.
2: Greet everyone like they are a long lost friend or family member even if they look ‘dodgy’ – try not making assumptions based on how someone looks. Ok so maybe a bit over the top, but at least acknowledge people in the street – I’ve developed a series of casual greetings – the simple smile, Hi/Hey smile and the ‘top gun’ wave (reserved for on my bike).
3: Share stuff if you have too much of it – especially fruit, garden produce. I loved going with my Dad to deliver fish as a kid – generosity doesn’t have to be a grand gesture.
4: Share skills and time – not out of expectation of the favour being returned like some form of time bank – no – just offer if you see or perceive it might be accepted. I am forever grateful to our neighbour who recently saved me from a giant spider…it turned out to be fluff blowing out the ceiling crack but he saw the funny side – love him for that -a unique shared experience we have bonded over.
5: Ask for stuff if you don’t have it – the old borrow a cup of sugar thing – but if you aren’t a baker or have no use for sugar – power tools, ladders, toilet paper…maybe not
6: Neighbours are better than house alarms – let each other know when you are away, feed pets, water plants, collect mail (don’t read it!).
7: Let kids play on the street – if you want cars to slow down, don’t do it artificially, I know it sits a bit uncomfortably with safety but it works. Clearly I am not talking about main highways or busy streets.
8: Learn the names of local pets. Greet them as in 2.
9: Read the local paper – finding out what is news worthy is one of the fastest ways to get a feel for your community.
10: Exercise locally, run, walk, ride, whatever it is you get a chance to observe without looking like a stalker.

Developing trust and respect require interactions and take time to develop. It’s become a popular idea to develop values by ‘serving the community.’ I think this is partly in response to a genuine concern that we are somehow losing compassion, caring for others. I’ve noticed a proliferation of ‘service based’ projects particularly for young people. But I’m not convinced ‘doing service’ is the same as being ready to be of service. It seems to me, doing things for others has become a pathway to recognition and status, it is something to put on the CV. Self-interest and a an almost ‘evangelistic’ fervour around ‘helping others’ is unsettling. This is where altruism gives way to narcissism because of a strong Ego undertone.
That is not to say young people aren’t out there just doing what works. The Student Army after the Christchurch earth quake is a good example.

If you want to serve – join the Navy, you don’t have to be a Macho Man. But if you want to make friends join a group, team, perhaps check out the ‘YMCA.’ Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

The hair essentials

Hair has to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the human body. It defines us in multiple ways layers and even across species. We have strange rules, rituals, fears and hang ups based on where it grows, doesn’t grow, colour and length. My Mum is a hairdresser, and so was her mum but I broke that chain and to be quite honest the world is a safer place for me not having taken up the trade.
I would work in the salon after schools sweeping the floors and doing the perming rollers for her. She would listen to customers talk through personal difficulties, while deftly snipping away. The regulars were like family, many of them watched me grow up. When she branched out to waxing and tinting it dawned on me just how hair defined our sense of self.

Every permutation of human identity can be defined in some way by hair. This is by no means and exhaustive list but serves as a bit of a provocation to notice. Aside from ethnicity where biology (genetics) plays a big part in the ways hair grows we have:
Age
Babies – sometimes born with lots of hair or no hair.
Puberty – Hair appearing in interesting new places, to be celebrated or removed depending on what gender you are identifying with.
Adult hood – hoping hair will stay in places it should be and not migrate to places it shouldn’t be.
Late Adulthood – hoping hair doesn’t do a vanishing act on head and trying desperately to keep its original colour.
Golden Years – giving up the fight and embracing the grey – or back to no hair – full cycle.
Gender
Women – femininity defined by length of hair, intelligence – colour of hair.
Men – masculinity defined by facial hair and body hair – to some degree, perhaps more so 20 years ago.
Sexuality
Length of hair for women and the removal of hair from body parts. Men – how groomed their hair is – no matter where it is on their bodies (if they have it on their bodies).
Religion Just a couple of interesting examples to demonstrate intriguing relationship to hair.
Sikh – nature knows best, hair is a gift and if it isn’t a hindrance shouldn’t be tampered with.
Brethren – if a woman doesn’t cover her head she should have her hair cut off. Seeing as it is ‘shameful’ for a woman to have her hair shaved or short – keeping it long and covered is the usual outcome.
Hindu – hair on new born babies is associated with past lives so is shaved off. There is also a belief that shaving stimulates proper brain growth and the ‘tuft’ at the crown of the head protects memory.

There are some other interesting expressions of diversity running parallel such as ‘sub-cultures’ of belonging. For example relating to music (punk spikes, reggae dreadlocks) ‘hippie’ locks, the ‘mullet'(think ‘MacGyver’ or the 80’s in general). Skin colour, age, gender and ethnicity might be our most common default starting points for locating someone socially but I would argue hair features just as strongly. If your hair seems to contradict any of the above criteria it can put a bit of a spanner in the label works. Bring it on! I’d love to see more people in their 80’s or 90’s sporting silvery dreadlocks.

Most of us have played games growing up pretending to be someone else. Escaping ourselves is fun and if we want a ‘quick change’ wigs often work effectively to propel us into an alter ego. But radically tampering with your own ‘do’ can come with some unforeseen social fall-out and I’ve had some close encounters with this phenomenon.
I remember my brother shaving all his hair off at university. When you see cartoons of people getting such a fright they get airborne – that was me when I saw him sitting on my couch. I got dreadlocks and really do think that was the better choice given we were studying in Dunedin. Much warmer having a wooly locks when it is a toasty 3 degrees celcius in your flat. We both encountered a change in perception from others. I got lots of attention from other ‘dreadlocked’ folk of all walks of life – people who probably would never stop and talk to me. My bro – well – sadly for him the ‘skin head’ look came with connotations of ‘white power’ hate groups. When he went into shops women would go out the back and get the manager to serve him. Needless to say he was happy when his hair started growing back. Then there are pranks such as shaving peoples eyebrows off. It’s not a lot but boy does it change how a person looks.

Going down the rabbit hole now, hair possibly has a ‘supernatural’ and spiritual connection to life. As science pushes further into the realms of the invisible and explores subtle fields of energy our understanding of what is real and what defines our world grow and evolve. So what about the possibility that hair could be a form of ‘antennae’ that taps into these unseen forces? Think its the realm of science fiction – Avatar? Well, maybe truth is indeed stranger than fiction:
http://www.sott.net/article/234783-The-Truth-About-Hair-and-Why-Indians-Would-Keep-Their-Hair-Long
In short, during the Vietnam War the US Government went looking for ‘talented scouts’ and went to the Native Indian community. Once recruited they would be given a standard military ‘buzz cut’ (bye bye long locks) and hey presto – no more ‘6th sense.

All of us have a relationship with this fibrous structural protein that is captured by multiple meanings from the functional to the fashionable and even the freaky. But there is one place hair should never be, and that is in your food. Just one tiny hair and that’s it – meal ruined.

That’s about the long and short of it, although it’s not always that cut and dried.

Praise to Lorde

I’m sure I wasn’t the only Kiwi fist punching the air this afternoon watching the 56th Grammy awards. Just in case you missed it (you won’t if you are located in New Zealand – pretty sure it will lead every news outlet here), Ella Yelich-O’Connor – AKA Lorde took out 2 Grammys. She is 17…I will leave that hanging in mid air for a moment as we consider what dominates the music industry (the giant production monster that is about $ not necessarily the art of music making).

She might not have the YouTube hits of ‘Gangnam Style’ but she has a more authentic and unique style than many and she is a refreshing representation of youth. If you haven’t seen her Grammy performance check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Belewo58nCA

There was nothing ‘sexy’ about her performance – she actually wore clothes on stage – seems a lot of female artists get as far as undies and bra and have something in their contracts that prevents them putting on a jacket or pants! And don’t get me started on twerking.

For that I salute you Ella. Perhaps you could reach out to Justin Bieber who seems to be struggling a bit with maintaining a sense of himself outside of the ‘gangster’ image that has moulded him over the last couple of years.

Its not all about the finish line

Finish lines are to be crossed marking the completion of the event. But it occurred to me today after crossing the line at the 70.3 ironman in Auckland that it can be a bit of a mirage. The ‘Oasis’ of these events I believe is in the connections and small moments that forever link you to another human being. Be it through the shared pain, excitement at the start line, encouragement from spectators, it dissolves the illusion of individual competitors and reveals the stunning beauty of the shared experience. You can ‘feel’ the love, it matters. Spectators are a form of aid station. We drink deeply from the kindness, warmth and enthusiasm and often look like we don’t appreciate it, especially when we are experiencing a metabolic meltdown and feel like our legs have been injected with lead.

I would like to hear people talk about their experience more rather than splits, times, number of events they have done. Why? Because we have a preoccupation with individuality and elevating the performance of one over another – fuelling that ever hungry monster called the Ego. Its a philosophical, psychological and spiritual challenge or declaration I suppose. I’m not saying we need to get rid of the finish line, or push ourselves, have a hope or time we would like to do. But if thoughts are forces, and emotions are energy in motion – then we are missing an opportunity to generate a different kind of collective consciousness through these events.

So I suggest a new form of ‘results’ list. One where athletes and spectators can record thoughts, observations, experiences and moments. I would like to kick off this list by saying – 1: Epic sunrise seen through my goggles during swim 2:Getting to ride in the bus lane was cool 3: The dude who said I was running ‘steady’ – nice! (he was fanging it) 4: Good effort from spectators reading my name…even the finish line announcer struggled but they persevered and I think got there in the end.

And I have to say – crossing the line felt FANTASTIC!