Opinion: Chlöe Swarbrick

As somebody with the rare privilege of representing New Zealanders as a Member of Parliament, in an environment where mental health concerns permeate near every community across our country, I believe there’s a responsibility to be frank and real about the issue.

Chlöe Swarbrick and Zoe Palmer.

When I was growing up – which many remind me wasn’t too long ago – kids who spoke about their darkness or struggles were seen as trying to be ‘edgy’, or dismissed as complaining or attention-seeking.

Throughout my teenage years, then through University, and now as an adult, I’ve seen the unnecessary and heart-breaking passing of a number of friends and colleagues who’ve felt unable to talk about their dark internal battles, or unable to access the help they needed when they needed it.

A few days ago, the Chief Coroner released annual statistics on suicide. They are the highest they’ve ever been. Each of those figures is the life of an incredible person with whānau and friends who’ll be experiencing immense loss. Each of those numbers is a tragedy.

This is not a problem we solve by not talking about it. So how do we talk about it?

Throughout the past week, I’ve been fortunate to travel around the top of the South Island, meeting with Kiwis in the education system, small businesses, community gardens, public meetings, youth spaces and mental health facilities.

One of those I met with was the staunch and driven Zoe Palmer, who you may know as the high-schooler fighting to keep Nelson’s specialised youth mental health services open.

Zoe shared her personal experience with the mental health catch-22 in the form of a response from “adults” cautioning her that talking openly about her own experience with mental health issues – notably, in the context of speaking to the critical importance of local services – could prejudice her future.

They would’ve been instinctively looking out for Zoe, surely, but the irony is dripping. In the same breath, often in response to loss, we send our young people the message that they need to speak to their darkness, then warn that honesty in light of our vulnerability and issues can open the door to their being discriminated against.

This is an inherently individualistic approach to the issue.

We want people to reach out when they’re in crisis, but not make a show of themselves. We want people to take responsibility for accessing the services they need, but we seem to want to compartmentalise that part of them. We talk about “personal responsibility” and “resilience” and “coping techniques”, but we don’t often talk about the environment that’s led to an epidemic of mental health issues bubbling away under the surface across pretty much every demographic in our society.

We have to decide whether we want to be comfortable with people opening up about their mental health issues, or we’re not. And we have to commit to tackling a wicked, multi-faceted problem. We don’t yet have the workforce we need to deliver the frontline services we need, yet the pipeline of those reaching out is growing, whilst we simultaneously know those reaching out are still the tip of the iceberg.

What we need is an approach that addresses all fronts. We need to tackle the root causes of the epidemic, we need to provide all New Zealanders with an environment where they can talk openly about their mental health, but we have to ensure critical frontline services are there to catch people whilst we invest in and work out a sustainable solution.

At the end of October, the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry will report back to Parliament on the drivers of mental health and substance addiction and abuse issues, gaps in our system and how to fill them. We will necessarily address the requisite workforce and resourcing challenges. But Parliament cannot legislate an overnight culture change.

If we want to remove stigma around mental health, I’d recommend it’s time we get comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Nothing will change if we don’t talk about the things we’re not used to talking about.

Where to get help:

If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

Or if you need to talk to someone else:

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Samaritans 0800 726 666
• Rural Support Trust: 0800 787 254

Source: NZ Herald



  1. I so agree with Chloe Swarbrick : the stigma around mental illness must go. But does she fully understand that stigma about depression has increased markedly over this last generation? Why?? Three changes have happened in the last 25 years :

    1. We no longer openly and honestly diagnose our multitude of functional mental afflictions – it is one hotchpotch of “mental illness”. Take your pick : reactive depression, bulimia, obsessive neurosis, bi-polar or other endogenous depressions, schizophrenia, anxiety, etc., etc., etc. And yet, of course, clinical manifestations and treatments of each illness vary enormously.

    2. We no longer have designated psychiatric hospitals. Only 25 years ago people with depression routinely admitted themselves to the peaceful, acute admission wards here for a few days respite, soul-searching and medical treatment – and nobody thought disparagingly about them for that. Anybody coming to the doors of the admission wards would be admitted, no questions asked, day or night – I know, being relieving night charge of a big mental institution for some years in the early 1990s.

    3. Mental health legislation changes in 1992 meant that you are now able to behave insanely in public – and that insane people must live in the community, i.e. in “half-way houses” (half-way to where?) scattered around in all our suburbs – no matter whether or not they are able to function as good neighbours to other city dwellers. Stigma against mental illness has increased hugely because of this. A surprising result of housing our obviously insane population in special institutions for 150 years was that the primitive fears and ignorant prejudices about mentally ill people, so prevalent in the middle ages, were actually laid to rest – simply because of the success of the asylums. We learnt that schizophrenia was a knowable illness with a predictable prognosis, nothing to be scared of – and that only a very few sufferers in the acute stages of their illness were dangerous. Our society is now moving back to attitudes prevailing in the middle ages – we are in witch-hunting territory again. I hate and fear it.


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