I hope by the time you’re reading this, these two pictures about staying alive and healthy will be just as cool as each other.
I visited a counsellor last week. I’m sure a lot of other people did too, I hope they did. But while Instagram and Facebook are filled with people talking about how much time they spend at the gym looking after their physical health, their biceps and back, people don’t talk nearly as much about what they do to maintain or build their mental health. What about the maintenance or re-building of mental well-being? What is my Facebook feed doing about that? (Facebook is social media, it might not exist when you’re thirteen). When your resilience muscles are being strained, mental health exercise is just as important as the gym. The counsellor’s chair (or your version of it) is just as important as the bench-press, the pull-up bar and the treadmill.
Aotearoa has the highest youth suicide ratein the developed world.
I haven’t started seeing a counsellor because I’ve hit rock bottom, or because I suffer from any diagnosed illness. It’s maintenance, I’ve got more stressors than usual right now and not as much time for my usual mental health exercises. I write, make music, meditate and exercise to deal with my demons and day-to-day stress. When I feel those aren’t working or I can’t give them the time they need, I know it’s time to do something different. So that’s what I did. It’s not embarrassing. It doesn’t mean I’m crazy. It definitely doesn’t mean I’m weak. It means I know maintaining my mental health is just as important as how many steps my smartwatch registers, how many plates I can slide on the bar, or how many Ks light up the cross-trainer screen. The others are just more marketable so we hear about them more.
Again, Aotearoa has the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world. Twice as high as the U.S, and five times as high as Britain.
After youth, the next group most at risk of suicide in New Zealand are Maori/Pacific Islanders, then it’s the LGBTQ community. Kāhu and Huhana, you both fit at least two of those three high-risk groups. So this is an important thing for you to think about. Life or death important. Society will tell you what being strong is, for the most part, they’re wrong – you definitely don’t need to ‘tough it out’ alone.
I built the habits of writing music, journaling and exercise into my life early on. They were, and are, how I survived in the holes left in our family when two of my sisters, your aunties, were torn away from us as young children. I didn’t realise this until those same routines helped me process and treat taking a life when I was a young adult. I now know that those habits are how I cope with everything, and I prioritise them as such. That’s how I carry those sadnesses and that guilt while living a happy, fulfilled life. I can scream angrily at the microphone. I cry writing sad songs, stories, and streams of consciousness in my journal. When those heavy emotions were are processed and balanced, I’m free to take in and take on the rest of the world with an open heart and eyes. And that processing isn’t done and dusted, it never is, I need to re-balance all the time. But because I’ve found re-balancing mechanisms I love and enjoy, those routines are now parts of my life that I look forward to every day.
Please take your mental well-being seriously. If you need to see a counsellor or someone else who can help, do it.
The ways you rebalance and regulate emotions are a few more letters worth of time. They will ultimately depend on what you grow up to love and what your mum and I expose you to, that’s our job. This letter is a reminder that mental health is just as important as physical health. When you’re older, you can, and should, focus on both.
Find a way to express yourself safely.
Find friends who let you be honest, accepted and loved – your family will be there for that too.
Find a way to communicate and translate your thoughts and feelings – not just the strange ones that surprise and scare you as they stomp through your still-growing brain. Being able to articulate even your day-to-day, seemingly boring emotions is a life-skill. It builds self-awareness and emotional intelligence.
Find a way to exercise regularly.
If you need to, see a counsellor.
Later, it will be your job to treat your mental health with the urgency it quietly screams for. It’s not a choice, you need to, our bodies and brains evolved that way. We’re designed to live in tribes and co-regulate our emotions alongside others with honesty and acceptance. We worked together in hunting parties; we sat weaving with our mothers and grandmothers, dug kumara pits, and swum in the sea. We fought, literally ran from threats; we danced around the campfire, wrote songs and played games.
When an animal pack or human tribe performs a ritual (all those in attendance participate in one way or another), they attain analagous (similar) emotional regulation – Emerging ritual in secular societies.
Those rituals and reactions helped us regulate our emotions. Our brains are hard-wired for that co-regulation – we need it.
There’s a lot of research by smart people (like this paper here) that shows our ability to regulate our emotion is crucial for well-being. It’s not just a thing to be envious of in ‘balanced and level’ people. It’s something you can actively work on.
We need social connections that see our true selves, not just Social Media friends who ‘like’ staged shots – real connections who care and are emotionally available.
We need honest communication with the world about who and how we are.
We need to translate our lives so we understand them ourselves – I do that through writing and music. Some people paint, carve, or design. Others find creative solutions at work. Huhana, yesterday you were playing with your toys and shaped them into a family unit – that’s kind of what you were doing, translating and explaining the life you’re surrounded by.
I realise I’m biased but smarter people than your Dad agree that creativity is an important tool in well-being.
The results of this study support theories that suggest play, creativity, and emotion regulation are linked – Hoffmann, Jessica,Russ, Sandra
New Zealand has the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world. I’ve said it three times in this letter, and that’s probably not enough.
Huhana and Kāhu, you both fit two of the three highest risk groups in the country with the highest risk of youth suicide in the world – your whānau will play our part to keep you safe and healthy as you grow, later on, how are you going to make sure you stay mentally fit? How are you going to take care of your mental well-being? It’s just as important as eating right and stretching before exercise. It’s way more important than how much money you make. Prioritise it. Please.
PS, Huhana, here’s a message from three-year-old you:
huhana (you had some help wih the spelling, but you did the typing).
klqwertyuiopasdfghzxcvbnmw (this one was all you!)
PPS, Kāhu, don’t feel bad – you’re seven months old at the moment – you’ll figure it out.