In the 2011/2012 New Zealand Health Survey, 14.3% of New Zealand adults had been diagnosed with depression at some time in their lives and 6.1% with anxiety disorders. It is fair to say, considering the population of New Zealand, this is not an issue that should be taken lightly. It is also evidently not something that people experience in isolation, however it is something that is often experienced in feelings of isolation. That is why today we are talking about: why it is okay not to be okay.
In this years LitCrawl, mental health is at the forefront of our lineup, with Anxiety Understood: in which editor of Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety, Naomi Arnold, sits down with contributing writers Riki Gooch, Danyl Mclauchlan, Kirsten McDougall and Anthony Byrt to hear about how anxiety inhabits their lives. In the Crawl, journalist Sarah Lang talks to authors Isa Pearl Ritchie, Emma Neale and Naomi Arnold, as they grapple with the intricacies of writing about mental health during the event ‘In Your Head’.
For Mental Health Awareness Week we talked to Naomi Arnold, an award-winning freelance and editor of Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety which launches today. Headlands tells the real, messy story behind the statistics – what anxiety feels like, what causes it, what helps and what doesn’t.
We talked to Naomi to unpack why it is ok not to be ok and the reasons for the rise of anxiety in our society:
Q: How do books like Headlands help remove the stigma around anxiety? Why is it so crucial to share a wide range of stories?
Naomi: By talking about it, and by listening without judgment. Headlands isn’t a self-help book that offers solutions, but a chronicle of experiences with anxiety written by 32 very different people. Although the writers do talk about things that have helped them, they are all at different stages with the illness. Some, like Sarah Wilson and Michelle Langstone, identified it very early on in their lives, and others, like Tusiata Avia, wrote their pieces while they were just starting to figure it out - in Tusiata’s case, in the first six months of their illness, still not sure what it is or what to do.
Anxiety and panic attacks aren't always logical or easy to explain. How do you tell someone that you can’t leave the house today or that the noise of a party is too overwhelming and you have to escape? Or that your heart is beating so hard and you’re so lightheaded you think you might be dying? These writers have detailed what’s that like with beauty and humour. The pieces are all very honest and open, and I hope that’s helpful for readers who are wondering what is going on inside their own heads and why they’re feeling so miserable. The point of the book is to say: You're not alone. The stories normalise the condition, and I hope people reading it will be able to find aspects of themselves mirrored within. I also hope that friends and family members will be able to pick it up and understand a little more about their loved one and how to support them - and the same goes for employers, who have a huge role to play in supporting people through anxiety at work, a role I think it can be easier to ignore than engage with.
Millennials in particular “tend to get a bad rap” where mental health is concerned: where (I) as a millennial seem to be swamped with stories and videos under this topic. Despite this, one study which reviewed data on anxiety disorders found no evidence of correlation. This leads me to consider:
Q: Why does mental health seem to more prevalent in today's society? Do you think that social media etc creates anxieties therefore it is more prevalent or do you think people just are more aware?
Naomi: “The old ways of our grandparents didn’t work and caused more problems. Perhaps, as the world has become increasingly more stressful, we’ve gotten to a saturation point with so many people experiencing and reporting it that it’s leaching into wider consciousness, with people in power - media, government, business - saying- This needs to be talked about'. I do think the conversation is developing - we’ve gone from the early John Kirwan days to including more nuance and awareness of how different people experience mental health and mental illness, and what the community can do, which is really important.
Social media has been incredible for connection, dissemination of information and ensuring that historically marginalised voices are able to be heard and amplified. I have learned so much about the world and how different people experience it from following a huge variety of people on Twitter, for example. That’s been so valuable and I wouldn’t be without it. But I think if you frequently feel overwhelmed and that bleeds into the rest of your life, then it’s a good idea to carefully monitor your social media input and your reactions to it.
It's been really brought home to me since Trump ran for office, and especially since the Kavanaugh disaster. I saw a tweet that said something along the lines of it’s not that people don't believe Christine Blasey Ford - it’s that they do, but that they don’t care. If you’re a woman in this world, let alone someone who has been sexually assaulted, that realisation is incredibly destabilising and dehumanising. Then you go online and see half your friends, family and community posting some bullshit about it being a scary time to be a man and how all this #metoo stuff has ruined the fun harmless game of flirting - when before social media you might have remained in blissful ignorance - and it becomes that little bit more difficult to feel generally safe and respected as a human being. And that’s just on a standard Wednesday night Facebook scroll. That affects your mental health. And it’s not social media’s fault, but it’s so powerful a medium that it can blare a hundred shitty opinions at you in a few seconds, and that can be overwhelming. It turns your home and devices into places of threat.
Then there are the status games. Essentially, social media means we’re all gathered in the town square, walking around and calling out to each other, looking for support, validation, and recognition. Not only are thousands of opinions thrown at you at once, but some of those other people are more gifted at communicating via the medium or are perceived to be higher in status, and we can see that playing out numerically, in real time, with numbers of likes, etc. It’s a mindfuck, because as ultra-social animals humans are extremely sensitive to status and we feel that those numbers actually say something about our total worth as human beings. But humans actually evolved with the brain space to care about and develop healthy social relationships with a surprisingly small number of people, face to face, not thousands of anonymous strangers. If you don’t get those dopamine hits of likes and engagement - which are essentially small flashes of ‘hey, someone cares about me’ - or they suddenly drop off, you can feel like a failure, or like everyone else in that town square knows, likes or respects each other more than they do you. I do think that’s dangerous if you’re already feeling vulnerable, especially if you’re a young person.
And that doesn’t even cover bullying and all the other abuse problems that people, overwhelmingly women, face on social media, where you can send a death threat in seconds. I think it’s a powerful tool that people susceptible to low moods should filter and access as sparingly as possible.”
Q: How can institutions such as schools and universities best be of use to individuals?
Naomi: “By hiring, valuing and supporting staff from many different backgrounds and having them at the decision-making table as well. By having greater awareness of class and cultural pressures and differences for students, and how they impact mental health, mental illness, and access to health services. Working on real awareness, which means actually listening, reading and talking to lots of different people about what they need and what they think, and then implementing the strategies that people feel would best work for them. By supporting students who might be struggling but not able to recognise or admit it, and not writing them off as failures too soon.”
Q: How can we be more active in creating discussions about mental health?
Naomi: “I do think we need to be better at dealing with our loved ones without judgment. We need to be open to what people are saying, possibly even to what they’re saying about us, without getting defensive or proffering some ’solution’ immediately. Often, there isn’t a solution, and judgment, even subtle, will just make them clam up and feel worse. For any person with mental illness, talking about it is therapy, and it can be very effective - but not everyone has the luxury of being around understanding people who will listen patiently.
Zion Tauamiti, a suicide prevention worker, put it beautifully in his piece for the book when he said ‘I think [listening] is the most important tool and gift in the community. Listening is making people feel heard, which makes them feel safe, comfortable, and able to open up to you, able to be vulnerable about the anxieties and the things they’re going through.’ Each of us needs to ask ourselves ‘Would my friends and family feel safe opening up to me? What are my reactions when they do? What am I doing to block them expressing themselves, and how can I change it?’”
But being a good listener means being very aware of your own thoughts, emotions, and reactions, a skill which takes time to develop - and, which is, in fact, a good skill to learn when dealing with anxiety itself.
At the end of the day, opening the conversation is where it all begins to understand that you are not alone. If talking about it makes that more likely to help reduce the stigma- this is a silver lining to what is a cloud above the heads of many individuals struggling with mental illness. We as a society need to shift this stigma of dealing with our mental health to perceptions of creating ‘self love’. By speaking up and removing the stigma we can help those battling to understand that it is okay not to be okay, and that asking for help on the journey to becoming okay, is indeed: very okay.
Be part of the conversation and grab your tickets to ‘Anxiety Understood’ to hear raw and honest accounts of the anxiety experience; or come along to ‘In Your Head’ during the crawl to hear about the intricacies of writing about mental health.