Whenever there are disasters in the world, the need for mental health care spikes amongst affected societies. We see it when there are terror attacks, natural disasters, and wars.

One reality becomes more and more evident in every part of the world: there aren’t enough mental health professionals out there to deal with all the people that need their help.

A qualification in counselling or psychotherapy takes years. Zimbabwe found a workaround for the lack of qualified therapists when its capital Harare saw the bulldozing of slums make 700,000 homeless: the nation trained amateurs as counsellors in just a few weeks, so they could help their fellow man.

Elderly Zimbabwean women, known as “the grandmothers” in this project, set up “friendship benches” which enabled other Zimbabweans to sidle up and discuss their kufungisisa (which translates to “thinking too much”); the local expression for depression and anxiety.

The grandmothers didn’t have qualifications in cognitive-behavioural therapy under their belts. They didn’t have masters degrees and PhDs. They were simple, everyday people known for their community work who were willing to listen, and provide advice to those who were struggling.

A 2014-2015 study revealed that after six months of regular visits to one of the grandmothers, only 13-14 per cent of people still had symptoms of anxiety or depression. The model was picked up in Tanzania, and by 2016 had made its way to New York City. There, 250,000 of the Big Apple’s firefighters, police officers, teachers, shopkeepers and other citizens were called upon spot common risk factors and warning signs of mental illness amongst their communities, and respond with amateur help accordingly.

When I started talking and writing about my mental health a few years back, it felt like I was revealing a big secret about life with anxiety. It was something nobody knew about me. I even wrote a Huffington Post op-ed called “What Happened When I ‘Came Out’ About Being In Therapy”, detailing my unexpected experience.

Three years on, the world’s conversations around mental health have completely changed. Four out of five people I speak to say they have, or have experienced, some kind of mental health issue – be it anxiety, depression, or something else.

I finished my therapy – weekly meetings with a psychologist – in late 2016 after more than six months. I now know it to be the best thing I have ever done for myself. Over the course of that year, I was able to acknowledge, understand, and accept what made me anxious. This took much of the power away from its effect on my day-to-day life.

Yet I was lucky enough to be of financial means to get help via some form of counselling. Generally, it will cost around $140-180 an hour to see a qualified therapist. I was also willing to accept that I needed help – another grand challenge in mental health treatment.

This brings me back to why we need amateur counsellors in New Zealand. I understand how many people are in need of somebody to talk their struggles through with. New Zealanders are in desperate need of mindfulness training and cognitive-behavioural methods to understand their lives: we come from a “harden up” culture that has never been able to talk about our mental woes before.

I believe now is the time for amateurs to step in. Unfortunately there’s no civic programme akin to those in Zimbabwe or New York City here, so the onus rests on us – as individuals connected to other individuals – to help each other.

If you’re somebody like me, who has been through hard times with your mental health and come out the other side, tell others in your family, friendship groups, and community about it. Everyone in your life needs to know that others, too, have struggled. It makes us all feel less alone.

Secondarily, if you’ve been through mental health difficulty yourself, you probably know (or at least have an idea) how to identify it in others. When I see someone I think is in mental strain, I will straight-up ask them about it, and try to get them talking. I will reveal my own vulnerabilities and experience to help them open up. If they’re receptive, I’ll start talking about some of the cognitive-behavioural methods I undertook (e.g. various mindfulness techniques to lessen the pain of a panic attack) and make an effort to relay how anybody can use these.

Gone are the days of our brothers and sisters suffering in silence. We have a duty to help each other with amateur counselling that, if nothing else, enables those in our communities to have their problems heard. The clichéd Kiwi “you’ll be fine…” mantra only has a future if it’s followed with, “…sit down and tell me about it”.

Source: NZ Herald


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