Water Bottling In New Zealand Must End

As we head to the September election, water issues will be high on the election radar. Given the state of our freshwater sources, it is imperative we ban water bottling in New Zealand, especially since we have enough problems with our water as it is. Nitrates and phosphates from fertilizers used on farms degrade water quality, eutrophying rivers and streams and choking the life out of them. Increasing irrigation, especially in dry areas like Canterbury, put pressure on already straining water supplies and exacerbate the problems caused by nutrients. 

Many parts of the Far North are under extreme water restrictions, and supplies are so low that some marae are considering closing. Meanwhile, in other parts of the region, consents were granted for avocado growers to extract water from the Aupouri aquifer, despite concerns from environmentalists about contamination of said groundwater sources. It doesn’t sit well with people that our water resources are being put under pressure so a few people can make money, and in the case of the avocado growers, you are talking about a highly water intensive crop in a very dry part of the country. 

Placing value on making money over people’s rights to water is infuriating, so people are understandably angry that bottling companies pay next to nothing for the water they take. A Herald report found that New Zealand ratepayers pay about 500 times more for water than bottling companies, $1.60 per cubic meter while bottlers pay about $0.03. When a litre bottle sells for about $2.50, you know these companies are making easy money. It is absurd that they pay so little but because the government believes that no one can own water, companies cannot be charged for the water itself, only measly fees associated with the management and regulation of the water.

To put it nicely, that management of water quality is piss-poor, with a high number of rivers still unsafe for swimming. Plastic pollution makes it worse, like the plastic beads were found in the water and land near Cloud Ocean’s water bottling plant in Canterbury. The fine for this non-compliance? A $750 fine and two abatement notices, essentially, written slaps on the wrist. With such pathetic consequences it’s no surprise companies believe they can get away with anything. 

Then there is the plastic issue. Otakiri Springs estimates it would create 3.7 million plastic bottles each day, or a whopping 1.35 billion a year. That’s a lot of plastic being created from one plant, much of which will end up in oceans and streams due to abysmal recycling standards around the world. Unfortunately, the Environment Court is not allowed to consider such distant effects in its decision to grant consents which is ridiculous because our contribution to any global environmental issue should absolutely be considered in any such decision. 

Then again, we know the law is rarely designed to protect the environment for the environment’s sake. Last year the Greens faced backlash when Eugenie Sage granted Otakiri Springs consent to expand their bottling plant near Whakatane. She claimed as Minister she is forced to abide by the Overseas Investment Act which, while true, highlights our collective distorted priorities. 

We saw such priorities during the Australian bushfire when students at Tamborine Mountain Area School were asked to stay home due to a lack of water. As emergency supplies sent by the government made their way to the region, water miners were taking water to a Coca-Cola factory in the opposite direction. In Stanthorpe, when residents were put under extreme water conditions the day after a Chinese water mining company was given the green light to extract water from nearby. The day will come when we have similar situations here. 

Scenarios like this raise an important question about priorities: why are people’s livelihoods less important than the profits of a few corporations? Ultimately, this is what it comes down to. A rational person would assume environmental legislation exists to preserve natural resources like water for future generations to use. However, most such laws are simply mechanisms to help corporations extract those resources for as long as possible.  

A clear example of this is California’s Strawberry Creek, sucked dry by Nestle. The company was inexplicably granted consent by the Forest Service to continue operating in the area for another five years despite that same organisation acknowledging that Nestle’s previous actions had adversely impacted water supply in the region. This happens with companies in all sorts of extractive industries – look at the state of our fishing stocks for example. We don’t know when to stop. 

Here and abroad, exploiting nature is so rampant because of the belief in free market ideologies, even when those ideologies are clearly flawed. For example, water bottling companies are granted consent to operate as long as they provide jobs that the region needs, however. However, there is no way of guaranteeing those jobs are secure, and often we find out how precarious those jobs are.

Again, Cloud Ocean is a great example to demonstrate this. Set up in 2017, the company was forced to lay off 125 staff a year later due to poor sales in China, which hardly seems like a welcome boost of stable employment the area needs. The flawed belief that creating jobs is inherently positive for rural regions is an idea that must be challenged if we are to raise the standard of living in rural New Zealand, because it is not working. 

Some argue that we should at least be making money from these water sales, and while it is undeniably unjust that a company can pay less than $1000 for millions of litres of water, this misses the point. Treating such a precious resource as a commodity results in what happens to most commodities: the exploitation of the resource until it runs out. We have to shift from this way of thinking and start thinking of the big picture. 

As the climate changes, droughts will become longer and more severe while storms and floods can contaminate fresh water supplies. There may very well come a time when we wished we had shown more concern for our water, because it could be the difference between life and death. 

So how do things change?

The most obvious individual action we can all take is to not buy bottled water. Get yourself a stainless steel reusable bottle, if not for environmental reasons, then get one for the fact it keeps your water cool for longer. Bonus fact: it also keeps your beer or cider cool for those sunny days at the beach.

In conjunction with this, our cities need to invest in more public drinking fountains. Most cities do a reasonable job of providing these, but there is room for improvement. The more readily available this water is, the less people need to buy bottled water. 

Most importantly we need to talk about water ownership. There are growing calls for Maori ownership of waterways, especially acknowledging the Crown’s failure to prevent the degradation of our waterways. This of course will be a contentious issue, but is a conversation we need to have. 

Another option that free-market enthusiasts would love is genuine public ownership and management, which means there might still be room for bottled water in the future but run by the state rather than private companies. This way, production only needs to happen to meet genuine need, such as during emergencies, rather than for profit. This means water sources won’t be polluted or over-exploited, and in times of crisis, those who are in need aren’t price gouged and forced to pay twice the normal price for water, as some in Australia reportedly did

Whatever the best course of action may be, we need to put a stop to water bottling now and figure it out. Remember, this is only the tip of the iceberg; our water sources are threatened by drought, contamination, and other sources of extraction such as irrigation, all of which also need to be addressed. The Coalition’s bold plan, which they failed to execute, was to put a levy on water bottling. That isn’t good enough.  For the future of our water, we can do better.

What is a Leftist?

Once I avoided using labels for fear of polarising people, but since I get called a loonie lefty anyway I figured I may as well own the label. It may be used as an insult to embarrass me for my beliefs, but there is nothing wrong with calling yourself a leftist.

McCarthyian Red Scare tactics demonised and persecuted people for holding leftist views since the first World War and have given people such a distorted view of left-wing politics that now anything remotely resembling progressive policy is ignorantly labelled “communist”. For example, a politician that even mentions raising taxes is dragged over the coals, even though much higher taxes was once a mainstream policy for good reasons.

It doesn’t help that there are plenty of internal disagreements on the left (e.g. between anarchists and communists) which makes it easy for people to misrepresent our ideas. People also often confuse liberalism with leftism, which is a tad insulting, so I thought I’d start explaining some basics.

Where liberals, like conservatives, are largely supporters of the current economic model just with a little bit more fairness, leftists are strictly anti-capitalist. Capitalism, the economic system we live in, is based on the assumption of endless growth and accumulation of profit. This leads to wealth political power being concentrated in the hands of a few while ordinary people struggle to get by. When power consolidates in the hands of the rich, laws are passed to help companies pillage natural resources and pollute the environment.

The climate crisis is the result of human actions, specifically, the reckless actions of a few corporations in their quest for profit. The underlying value or force of capitalism is greed, and it is that we must oppose.
As leftists, we believe a better world is possible. We envision a world based on cooperation, where people aren’t left to starve or sleep on the streets because they don’t have enough money. Where those on the other side of the political spectrum love hierarchies (i.e. the status quo), leftists prefer a society where wealth and power are shared. In a more equal society, we will want for less and learn to live in harmony with the natural world, rather than seeing it as a commodity to be exploited for our short term pleasure.

As the climate crisis unfolds in front of our eyes, more people must realise that this economic and political system cannot continue. We are delusional to think we can keep living the way we do without consequence. Things need to change.

Surprise, Surprise, Another Recession Is Coming

Ten years ago the global economy suffered a calamitous meltdown and millions of people around the world struggled as a consequence. Now, if economists are to be believed, we are looking down the barrel of another recession.  

People could be forgiven for not hearing about it, but these concerns have been published a range by media outlets around the world (see below).

Forbes: Is the Next Recession on the Way?

Money.com: The Next Recession is Coming by 2021, According to an Overwhelming Majority of Economists

The Guardian: We are due a recession in 2020 – and we will lack the tools to fight it

Stuff: Why the Next Recession will be Bigger than The Global Financial Crisis

Unfortunately, this sort of thing simply doesn’t make the front page of the news. Trump or some other distasteful aspect of United States politics tends to occupy that spot. It is unfortunate that more people in the media and parliament are not talking about it because we are still dealing with the impacts of the last recession, and perhaps most frighteningly, we seem not to have learned any lessons.  

The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 was a disaster for many people, but it was also an opportunity to change things. The predatory loans handed out to people from low socioeconomic backgrounds that were largely responsible for the crash should have earned the lenders serious jail time, yet they and everyone else who played a part got away with a fine and a slap on the wrist. Worse, many of the bankers who were bailed out used that money to pay themselves hefty bonuses and, in the absence of the introduction of meaningful legislation to prevent something similar happening again, many were able to carry on conducting business as usual.

For those interested in justice, the failure of lawmakers around the world to punish those responsible was frustrating. The Occupy Movement was the product of the anger and frustration of millions of people around the world disaffected with the way the global economy operates and the disproportionate power wielded by the financial and political elite. As valid as their points were, the media and indeed many ordinary people ridiculed the protesters in typical fashion using generic insults without even bothering to engage with the critiques or solutions the Occupy Movement was discussing.

Trying to understand how the economy works is no easy task, whether it be in the local or global context. Thus, we rely on the information that we regularly receive (the news) and our lived experience. Those of us who are better off than others didn’t notice any immediate or significant change to our lives during or after the GFC, so we have little reason to complain and also little reason to analyse the claims of those speaking out against the status quo. Unfortunately, it is those who maintain this ignorance that are the biggest obstacle to doing things a better way.

This ignorance is not necessarily surprising, but it is incredibly disheartening. We know that the wealthiest 1% holds most of the world’s wealth and power and that accumulation drives many of our socioeconomic problems, which was one of the key points raised by the Occupy Movement, yet we still love to idolise the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos as though they are our saviours. We are quick to ignore the fact that recessions offer the wealthy and opportunity to seize more assets (as happened with property particularly in the US after the GFC) which further deprives ordinary people the chance to get ahead. Perhaps most disappointingly, even though we know recessions occur every decade, we seem so shocked when the next one comes along.

People are often quick to dismiss socialism as a system that doesn’t work, and perhaps it isn’t a perfect model either, but we cannot continue to live under a paradigm predicated on greed and competition. More, to extol the unequivocal success of capitalism seems foolish when, not because of any anomaly but its very nature, it is driven into crisis every ten or so years, adversely affecting millions of people in the process. Ignorance is one thing, but we aren’t going to get anywhere if we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

I won’t lie, I’m not that thrilled about living in a system that we know is going to go belly up at certain intervals while we routinely do nothing at all to prevent it. The recent IPCC report claimed we have 12 years to stop runaway climate change, but if we can’t even manage not to crash the economy we revere so much, I fear there is little chance we will make the necessary changes that have been recommended to prevent many of the impacts of climate change.

That said, maybe there is reason to be optimistic. By all reports, the fallout from the upcoming recession will be bad, perhaps worse than last time. Also, we in New Zealand were lucky to be insulated from much of the fallout then, and it is likely we will not be so lucky next time. Maybe, just maybe, we will take the opportunity we didn’t take last time and seriously redesign the way society operates, because it may be that we have no other choice. It won’t be easy and will require massive amounts of energy, coordination and will, but another world is possible.

What Are Our “Kiwi Values” Anyway?

Thankfully, NZ First’s proposed Respecting New Zealand Values Bill is receiving little support from other parties and the public. In line with the party’s irrational fear of migrants and refugees, the bill would allow us to turn away those whose values are not compatible with ours. Citing concerns about xenophobia and freedom of religion, the language and history of NZ First’s prejudice makes it pretty clear that the proponents of this bill are not worried about Australians or Europeans.

Fortunately, there is no need to deconstruct NZ First’s arguments or rationale as most rational people can easily see this for what it is: dog-whistle, xenophobic politics. Nothing new from Peters and co.. However, what it does do is give us a chance to ask ourselves what our values as a country actually are.

We once prided ourselves on being an egalitarian society, but massive wealth and outcome disparities shows that this has not been true for a long time. Sure, we can be quite hospitable hosts to visitors from other countries at times, but there are also many well-documented instances where we have belittled, abused, or robbed tourists.

Controversial figures like Don Brash and the Canadian speakers Southern and Molyneaux showed how divided we are on issues such as race and immigration, and for all this talk of immigrants respecting New Zealand values, we are guilty of allowing their exploitation to occur in our restaurants, orchards and education institutions.

The thing is, I’m not sure we as a country know what we stand for. Like most liberal democracies, we are guilty of engaging in tribal and personality politics. Rather than being “for” ideas, it seems people prefer to be “against” others.

Labour supporters say that while not ideal, the current government’s policies are better than what National did during their 9 years in power, which while true, is no excuse to settle for half-cooked policy or to attack others for their views.

National supporters meanwhile are quick to criticise what the Government does, often before a proper analysis of the facts is conducted and repeat the same tired comments about inexperience and communism.

Politically, we have no shared vision of what the future may look like because all we seem to do is attack politicians and supporters of parties we disagree with over relatively minor issues or aspects of personality. Based on how things are at the moment, many of us would struggle to have a reasonable, rational conversation about what our collective values are.

We talk a big talk about looking after the environment, yet we find it so hard to agree on the smallest steps to reduce fossil fuel consumption, water pollution, and saving native species.

We can’t agree on objective facts, as demonstrated by the anti-1080 movement, anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers.

House prices are going through the roof and so many people are living in cars or on the street, all the while we bicker from left to right about ideas that will do little to provide adequate housing for those in need.

We have an inherently unfair and unequal distribution of wealth in this country, and no political party (except TOP) has any decent proposals to change this. More, we routinely attack and blame each other for our financial situations rather than helping lift people up.

We have so many issues to solve and we can’t do that when we are fighting all the time. Instead of focusing on the minor differences we have, we should be talking about all the things we have in common. Our visions and aspirations for the future are likely more similar than we think, but we allow the left-right paradigm to polarise the discussion, creating tensions that prevent collaboration.

I am glad to be a New Zealander but I think we could be doing so much better. Before we go lecturing others about “Kiwi values”, we need to sort our own shit out first and decide what we stand for, which we can’t do until we learn to listen and talk to each other with respect.

 

It’s Not Just You: Inequality in Society Causes Depression

When we talk about helping people overcome depression the solutions we offer involve them finding confidence and improving their self-esteem so they can deal with the challenges they face and ‘live normal lives’, whatever that means. This puts the emphasis is on the individual to change and carries the connotation that the problem is internal. Speaking from experience, I know that the causes are not always from within. In the past few years many researchers and commentators have pointed out that the high instances of depression we see today are likely caused by social influences such as income inequality, consumerism and competitive lifestyles, ideas which have not been talked about enough.  

Of course, bar media coverage of a few exceptional speakers and the occasional feel-good stories, we have done a dismal job of talking about mental health in the media, in schools and in the public in general. If we are serious about addressing this epidemic, we should be looking at all the information, something we have not always done well. For example, the common belief for years was that depression is simply a chemical imbalance where low levels of serotonin would cause people to exhibit depressive symptoms that medication (antidepressants) could alleviate. This idea was perpetuated despite a lack of evidence to support it and many doctors reluctantly prescribed antidepressants despite knowing they weren’t necessarily going to make a difference, at least not in many cases.

Thankfully, things have changed somewhat, and now we acknowledge that the causes of depression are unique to the experiences and lifestyles of the individual, and therefore the help a person needs is also unique. But there has still been little discussion of the social causes of depression despite researchers and organisations including the World Health Organisation have been saying for years that the causes of the widespread instances of depression in part result from the way society is structured.

“It is No Measure of Health to Be Well Adjusted to a Profoundly Sick Society” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

To paraphrase Johann Hari who has written on this very topic, rather than viewing depression as the problem that needs to be fixed, perhaps we need to look at it as a symptom of much bigger problems we face. After all, if one in six people in this country suffer from depression and many of them because they are struggling with daily challenges like unemployment, economic uncertainty and material hardship, perhaps the system isn’t working as well as we like to think. Indeed, there are some pretty clear ways this is happening.

The Influence of Social Hierarchy

A popular theory is that top-down hierarchies adversely impacts an individual’s mental health, particularly that of those in the middle and lower end of the pecking order. Hierarchies cause those with less power to avoid conflict with those that control resources and wield economic and political power because they live in a state of perpetual fear; their position and access to resources that sustain their lifestyles are not guaranteed as they are dependent on those with more power. They must tread carefully, for to upset the powers that be too greatly is to risk losing much. Thus, they suppress their emotions, often choosing to keep a low profile and accept the status quo rather than expressing how they really feel, just as the middle and lower classes do in Western societies in the face of injustice. As we know, the worst thing people suffering mental health problems can do is keep things bottled up.

Surprisingly, it is often those in the middle who exhibit higher rates of anxiety and depression than those in the lower section, possibly because their position in the social hierarchy is so precarious. They are not at the top of the order but believe they are almost there, but they are also aware that they are not far from the bottom and only a few missteps could land them there. This fear of being inferior or becoming even more inferior adds to the likelihood of anxious or depressive symptoms.

“…social pressure to be polite and deferential to people with greater status and power results in more emotion suppression among those who occupy low positions within a social hierarchy” (Langner et al., 2012, p4)

The modern workplace is a great example of such a hierarchy. The more responsibility a person holds within an organisation, the more pressure they are subjected to. Those in supervisor and manager roles are subjected to pressure from above, the executive level, and are also the ones that have to deal with the workers and pressure from them. As they embody that precarious middle space, they are often striving for higher office (and therefore pay) while being aware that several mistakes could see them demoted, which would undoubtedly be embarrassing. The workers on the ground floor are equally miserable because they have little control over the allocation of resources and wealth, in particular receiving a relatively small share of the latter. The executives on top of the pile have all the power, significantly more money and less reasons to be stressed, anxious or depressed.

Income Inequality and Depression

Because of the obvious class divide in this country and similar developed countries, it goes without saying that the distasteful levels of inequality are having an impact on our mental health. Numerous studies have demonstrated a positive relationship between economic inequality and depression in countries all around the world which cite a range of reasons for this relationship. One reason is that people compare themselves to others who are better off and feel a sense of defeat at the structural unfairness. Other reasons include associated developmental disorders in adolescents and a sense of withdrawal or shame by worse-off people in a community.

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains it is a serious problem. The graph below shows how in the United States, states that have higher levels of income inequality according to the Gini Coefficient tend to have higher instances of depression.why-greater-equality-makes-societies-stronger-richard-wilkinson-and-kate-pickett-bestselling-authors-of-the-spirit-level-why-equality-is-better-for-everyone-38-638

This phenomena is not unique to the United States, and nor is it limited to mental health. As the graph below demonstrates, more unequal countries experience a range of health and social problems which combine to create a perfect storm for those less fortunate.

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In unequal societies, competition for resources and wealth creates a host of problems.

Competition breeds misery

The defenders of the capitalist status quo love the idea of competition because apparently financial incentives foster innovation. To be fair, they are correct. It is amazing how much money and effort companies will invest to extract as much value from workers without paying them their fair share, or how to extract as much capital from the natural environment without having to pay to fix the problems they create. From that point of view, competition certainly does lead to innovative thinking, but not necessarily thinking that will benefit the majority of people.

Elsewhere, competition leads to misery in other ways. Financial wealth is often a determinant of social status, as it allows individuals to afford the symbols of wealth. In our consumerist society, clothing brands, expensive cars and the price of one’s house are common symbols of wealth, and targeted advertising convinces us either subconsciously or consciously to pursue these things. When societies are as unequal as New Zealand is, the class divide is noticeable. Because people want to climb higher up the social ladder, they pursue as much as possible the appearance of high social status, often by purchasing material goods like those mentioned above and often to the detriment of their health and well-being.

What should we be doing about it?

We should be working together

The strength and quality of relationships between people within communities plays a significant role on mental health. Alienation, isolation and loneliness are causes of depression that are themselves caused by inequality. Neoliberalism favours individualism and places emphasis on ‘individual responsibility’, even for socially-created problems, which only further isolates and alienates people. Therefore, we can live healthy lifestyles in which we accomplish things by working together.

In a clip discussing this very topic, Johann Hari presents an anecdote of a woman suffering from crippling anxiety and depression who finds purpose by working with others to create a garden. The best thing about this story is that it isn’t some unsubstantiated ‘hippy cure’ or anything; there are plenty of studies that link improved mental health to exposure to green space and working on collaborative projects like community gardens. We should be thinking how our communities can be restructured to encourage neighbourhoods the care for and empower each other.

We need a society that works for everyone

Perhaps the best way that we can care for each other is by creating a society that is fair and just. Currently, our neoliberal capitalist system is designed to continually advantage a select few while an increasing majority are left with less. This is making the mental health problems so many people face even worse and there is no legitimate reason why such an unfair regime should continue. Not that long ago, the distribution of wealth was more fair and those who earned more than enough would pay higher taxes that would ensure they are making positive contributions to society. Now, with essential services like healthcare and education so underfunded, it is beyond time for them to give back and use their wealth for good.

Currently there are a range of wonderful and aspirational organisations working on initiatives to combat mental health by empowering people, and while it is great they are making a difference in communities, imagine how much more they could accomplish if they didn’t have to rely on charity and volunteers. Imagine how much happier and productive people would be if they weren’t living with the constant anxiety of worrying whether they will be able to make rent or put food on the table. If people were taxed appropriate to their means and needs then those struggling to get by wouldn’t have to endure tax hikes for necessary infrastructure upgrades and others could have access to suitable, equitable education, housing and health services that are needed to improve mental health. Finally, imagine the things we could accomplish if society didn’t pit people against each other and valued cooperation and working for the collective good.  

Understand That It’s Not You

Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this is that depression and anxiety are not always caused by chemical imbalances or traumatic experience, but can actually be a response to a world that isn’t right. The problem, certainly in my case, is with the society we have created, a society that compels us to compete with each other and to be critical of ourselves. As we work to combat mental health in New Zealand and abroad, while our efforts should certainly empower people to find joy and purpose in each day and encourage openness about our feelings, we should also be talking about how our values as a society need to change. A happier society will be found when things are more fair and equal.

 

  1. Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Bellew, R., Mills, A. & Gale, C. (2009) The Dark Side of Competition: How Competitive Behaviour and Striving to Avoid Inferiority are Linked to Depression, Anxiety and Self-Harm. Psychology and Psychotherapy, 82(2), 123-36.
  2. Lacasse, J. & Leo, J. (2015) Antidepressants and the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression: A Reflection and Update on the Discourse. Florida State University Libraries.
  3. Langner, C., Epel, E., Matthews, K., Moskowitz, J. & Adler, N. (2012) Social Hierarchy and Depression: The Role of Emotion Suppression. Journal of Psychology, 146(4), 417-436.
  4. Macintyre, A., Ferris, D., Goncalves, B. & Quinn, N. (2018) What Has Economics Got To Do With It? The Impact of Socioeconomic Factors on Mental Health and the Case for Collective Action. Nature.com, <https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-018-0063-2>
  5. Patel, V., Burns, K., Dhingra, M., Tarver, L., Kohrt, B. & Lund, C. (2018) Income inequality and depression: a systematic review and meta‐analysis of the association and a scoping review of mechanisms. World Psychiatry, 17(1), 76-89.
  6. Schultz, W. (2015) The Chemical Imbalance Hypothesis: An Evaluation of the Evidence.  Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(1), 60-75

Talking About Depression Helps Break The Silence – Here’s My Contribution

When a celebrity commits suicide we have a brief and tentative public discussion about mental health and suicide before it quickly dissipates and we forget about the issue for a time. While we are having that conversation, we remind ourselves and each other again and again that if you are struggling to get through the day that you should reach out to your friends or family and ask for help. Considering the number and impact of celebrities committing suicide and our country’s horrific statistics , it is an increasingly important message. However, as much as we say it is okay to feel down and that you should reach out, it isn’t always that easy. It’s not even easy to admit that you have depression.

Trust me, I know.

Until now I have told only a handful of people, but I feel like I need to do my part to help break the taboo and silence we seem to have around mental health. I want to talk about my experience with depression not  because I think I am special or that I have particularly amazing insights or experiences that will help others overcome their problems, but because hopefully it helps at least one person realise that they are not alone in their struggles. I am not after pity or attention because I am okay now, and if I wasn’t alright I doubt I would be so open. More importantly, I hope that if I am willing to admit to having these feelings and can post it online for anyone to read, someone who has suffered in silence might feel that by comparison, opening up to a couple of close people isn’t so bad.

Dealing With The Black Dog

For years I struggled with depression without really knowing what it was. I stayed up late most nights feeling miserable and I would either break down and cry or I  just lay there running circles in my mind, overthinking my personal situation and criticizing myself. In my mind, I was dim, unattractive and socially awkward compared to everyone around me. Despite this, I was still a fairly social person and in those moments spent in the company of others, I was happy and content. The problem was that as soon as I was left with my own thoughts too long,  the wallowing and self-pity would kick in. I often thought about self-harm and all those dark things, but fortunately they remained thoughts and nothing more. I would often became withdrawn, irrational, and a touch aggressive (emotionally, not physically) although that was normally only inflicted on my partners. Alcohol made everything worse, and more than once I lost the plot during a night on booze.

While it is hard to explain why I felt these things, I know that some of that was down to my insecurity and worrying about how others perceived me. As easy as it is to say “Who cares what other people think!”, it isn’t that simple. In a time where social media plays such a massive role in our lives, it’s hard not to compare yourself to the standards set by others. We see the best parts of other people’s lives on our news feeds and make the assumption, whether consciously or not, that their lives are always like that. Similarly, we are bombarded by ads that promote preconceived standards of beauty and attractiveness, and when we don’t meet those standards, our self-esteem naturally takes a hit. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake those insecurities because I was constantly comparing myself to people around me and subsequently finding aspects of my personality or appearance to dislike, despite my best efforts to think positively about myself.

I can explain all this with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time I didn’t understand why I felt this way. At almost no point did I think about talking to anyone because if I couldn’t understand what was going on inside my head, how could they? From my point of view everyone was just so confident, they had their lives sorted and knew what they wanted to do, and I was just a mopey kid pretending to be an adult. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life other than wanting to help others, and I wasn’t sure how to go about doing that. The lack of direction made me doubt everything I did and see those actions as pointless. I often felt like I was just going through the motions day to day. I felt lost.

To make things worse, I couldn’t shake the belief that I had no legitimate reason to feel this way. See, everyone has their own reasons for feeling depressed and they vary. Some people have traumatic experiences that affect their confidence and sense of self-worth, while others experience financial and material hardship that takes an understandable toll on their mental health. Whether is because of failed relationships, losing loved ones and struggling with one’s identity, there are a range of factors that contribute to depression. For me personally, most of these didn’t apply.

I’ve mentioned before that I was raised well. I never went hungry, was never mistreated, I was loved and learned from my parents how to be a good person, which I think I have done a reasonable job of so far. We weren’t poor, but we also weren’t flush with cash. I had everything I needed. Maybe a six-pack or more confidence would have made life a bit more enjoyable but I can’t complain. When I thought about the life I had lived, I felt I had no good reason to feel depressed, which made things even more depressing.

This made me feel helpless and feeling helpless made me feel weak. As we often mention when we discuss mental health and suicide, it is not weakness to ask for help. People like myself don’t reach out because we have this idea that showing emotions is weakness and if we appear vulnerable, people will think less of us. We worry what they might say to others behind our backs, maybe laugh at how weak we are or that they will give us a hard time for feeling down. I felt so weak I resisted the idea that I was even experiencing depression and almost convinced myself that I was just an impostor who was passing their melancholy feelings off as depression. Eventually I did go get treatment, but I threw the pills away before long because I thought I didn’t need them and they weren’t doing anything anyway. To this day, I’m not sure they ever did.

It Gets Better

I have written this in the past tense because much of this no longer applies. As I said earlier, I got better over time. Perhaps the biggest source of my self-loathing was the disconnect between my values and actions. Like so many others who study Arts subjects, I went in wanting to change the world. The more I learned about the social and environmental problems in the world, the more resolved I became to help solve them. This led me down a path many others have walked down before me, where a greater understanding of the global economy, politics and human nature took me from youthful optimism to cynical pessimism, and the problems became so large and the solutions so much more unlikely that there seemed no point to even try make a difference.

I had an idea of the person I wanted to be and I constantly failed to live up to those standards which made me even more disappointed in myself and perpetuated the whole depressing cycle. Things only started to change when I got so sick of being miserable and I seriously re-evaluated what I was doing with my life and questioned how much longer could I continue to wallow in self-pity. I realised that I needed to start living up to the values I believed but rarely lived up to and resolved to do something that in any way, shape or form made the world a better place. I accepted that I may not find it straight away, but if I am moving in the right direction and I am happy with what I am doing then that is enough. This is ultimately what led me to teaching and now, years later, things are much better and I am happier. Having purpose and direction helped me put my insecurities in perspective and while they still affect me a bit now, I don’t get caught up in vicious cycles of overthinking like I used to.

With this and the support of an understanding partner, I managed to overcome many of these feelings, but that doesn’t mean the dark thoughts have gone away completely. Some days I will wake up feeling crap about myself and just feeling downright miserable.  And you know what? That is okay. I’ve come to accept that feeling this way from time to time is alright as long as I don’t dwell on things for too long. Those feelings of hopelessness and despair are always there, lurking just out of sight, but if managed right they don’t have to bother me too long. For a while I had convinced myself that I had beaten it, like it was the flu, and that  it no longer plagued me. Now I know it’s not something that goes away with the snap of the fingers, but it does get better. For me, accepting that it is an ongoing process and that bad days are a part of that process helps me get by.

What also helps me cope is the knowledge that, contrary to what some would have us believe, the causes of depression are not just internal. We live in a society where we are convinced to compete with each other for jobs and for money, and in order to make ends meet, we are working longer hours for stagnant pay while our bosses and celebrities become excessively rich. Meanwhile, we are struggling to make ends meet, adding stress and uncertainty to our lives.  We are materialistic and often place our sense of self-worth in purchased goods that serve as symbols of social status that we use to compare ourselves to others. When we don’t behave or look a certain way, we are ridiculed and made to feel isolated. I could go on, and indeed researchers have linked depression to inequality and capitalism which shows that aspects of the structure of society is exacerbating our mental health problems, but realising that many insecurities are manufactured aren’t just in my head is reassuring.

You Are Not Alone

Remember that this is just my experience. I haven’t reached the lows that other people have felt nor such dire circumstances that led them there, but that shouldn’t diminish my experience. Mental illness is still mental illness, and while some may have it worse than others, comparing experiences accomplishes nothing. Everyone suffering needs love and support from those around them. We all need to start caring for each other and thinking, before we say something that might cause pain, what struggles a person is going through. I would disappoint people if I didn’t get political for at least a moment to say that the government should be funding the crap out of mental health services.

This shouldn’t be something we only do when a celebrity commits suicide. This should be normal. We need to get into the habit of being open with how we feel, not necessarily online for the world to see and not for the purpose of garnering sympathy, but because we should be able to get help from those around us. To reiterate what I said earlier, if you are struggling, reach out to someone you trust. I can’t say to anyone how they might overcome their struggles because we are all unique, but they’re probably not going to be conquered if they remain a secret. I can say that opening yourself up is not weakness but strength, and I know this because writing this up and sharing it is one of the hardest things I’ve done in a long time. 

 

Some Thoughts on Empathy and Combating Racism

I started writing this as a draft script for a video on New Zealand history, with the intention of creating a visually compelling and informative clip that might debunk some of the myths about New Zealand and Maori history. You know the sort of tired ideas I am talking about, beliefs like all Maori willingly signed away their rights and land or that they are ungrateful, greedy, or have special privileges, uninformed opinions regurgitated by the likes of Hobson’s Pledge. Our goal was to address in some small way our collective failure to understand history that is ultimately responsible for the ignorance we see too often today. But the more I looked into it, the more I realised, or remembered, that facts do little to change people’s minds, at least the more extreme cases. Too often we are ruled by how we feel and what we believe, and it is the myths that remain in people’s minds rather than the facts.

Of all the myths that persist, perhaps the most damaging is the idea that everybody has the same opportunities in this country. We hear it mainly from people who currently occupy the middle or upper classes rather than from lower class people. The belief that we are all equal is accompanied by the assumption that if you are struggling on the benefit, then it is because you are lazy and need to work harder. Stop having so many kids, some will say. Stop having so many kids or wasting your money on the pokies, other sages advise. Despite this wisdom, rarely do they ask why people in such desperate situations do things that clearly are not in their best interest. Clearly, some people lack the ability to empathise with others, if they even know what empathy is.

Empathy isn’t simply putting yourself in someone’s shoes and saying “If I were in this situation I would do this or that…”. That isn’t removing your biases or prejudices. That doesn’t even acknowledge that they are a different person to you with their own unique thoughts and values. All you are doing is forcing your own opinions and perspectives on them and basically demanding that they be just like you. No, empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and genuinely trying to understand them. What experiences has this person had, or what sort of life have they led that has made them the person they are today? Why do they think the way they do, and how does that make them act? If you really want to know what makes someone tick, these are the sort of questions you need to ask. We are all shaped by the lessons we learn growing up, from our family, friends and school. We are the products of our environments, so what may seem like a logical decision to one person makes no sense to another.

Those who would say hurtful things about others should certainly bear this in mind, but those of us who (justifiably) call such people out for their bigotry and racism should also bear it in mind. It is easy to resort to anger when you see someone saying some racist crap. When I see someone say something like “If it wasn’t for Europeans you Maoris would still be wearing flax skirts killing each other” (someone told me that once), of course I am going to get pissed off. Feeling angry in a situation like that is only natural and shows your moral compass is correctly aligned, but when you step back and think about it, lashing out at them in anger isn’t productive.

Taking a step back requires you think about why someone thinks it is appropriate to say something so uninformed. Perhaps they grew up in a home full of people that thought this way. It could be they learnt nothing about New Zealand history at school and took what they knew from people around them who also knew nothing. Maybe they have never really gotten to know many Maori people and therefore never had to give much thought to the concerns of Maori in general. It could be a combination of these or something else, but like any other person in the world, their values and beliefs are shaped by their experiences and those around them.

Considering they haven’t been exposed to experiences that might teach them the same compassion or empathy that we might possess, is it really fair to attack them for it? I know it may seem absurd, excusing people who are often the walking definition of ‘privilege’ for racist speech or actions, but if they really don’t know any better, is it really so different from yelling at a child for not knowing math?

The privileged live in a bubble. Many have not known hardship because of their social status and the social status of those before them, granting them opportunities that are simply unattainable by others. To them, that privilege is invisible and a part of their life, making it difficult for them to understand why others struggle. Because of this they assume others simply do not work hard or bring misfortune on themselves. We might know better, but remember that although they are adults  they are so stuck in backwards ways of thinking that calling them racist will accomplish nothing other than make them angry and reduce what might be meaningful dialogue to a shit-throwing contest.

While such people may be privileged in the material sense, they are not worthy of our anger or envy. Instead, we should pity them. They might not have experienced hunger or discrimination, but they were also not taught what it means to care for people who are different to themselves, from different cultures or walks of life. They may think of themselves as compassionate or empathetic, but clearly that only applies to certain people in their lives and excludes others. That is their loss. There is beauty in each of the different cultures and worldviews that people in this country have to share, but appreciating them and their people only comes through understanding. Those who would make generalisations about others, try to exclude them or diminish their culture are missing a vital part of what it is to be human in our modern global society.

It seems counterintuitive that the people we would normally call disempowered are the ones with the power to change things, but I think it’s true. People who have lived experience with discrimination have the power to show others a better way of treating each other, and in this sense are privileged. It is our role to help the ignorant overcome their fear of other people and show them some compassion for their fellow man and woman, and it by listening to their concerns and then talking.

There have been articles posted recently saying old white men need to shut up. This kind of nonsense does more harm than good. It assumes based on age and skin colour that they have all experienced privilege and power in their lives. Blaming all men for being overpowering or sexually abusive as some ‘feminists’ (not actual feminists) do assumes men have never been in similar positions. Whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative, left-wing or right-wing, we make some awful generalisations about others that risk making enemies of those who might have supported our cause, but because we insulted and made generalisations about them, now no longer will. I say this because the tactics of some animal rights and ‘feminist’ activists have had this effect on me, making me resent them rather than wanting to listen to what they have to say. Attacking me for eating meat or simply being a man assumes that I am not a good person or that I don’t care about those issues, and their cause loses my support because they pissed me off.

Consider some of the stereotypes we make about old, white and wealthy mean. The general assumption is that they must be conservative, don’t care too much about the environment and probably are a little bit racist. No one would say that about David Attenborough, but they would about Trump. They belong to the same demographic yet represent vastly different ideas and values. Some say white men have held all the power for too long, yet many old white men throughout history have also lived in poverty and without power. On the other hand, some of those old white men who hold positions of power and influence have progressive ideas and are trying to make the world a better place for everyone. Within any demographic there is a spectrum of beliefs and experiences, and while it is true that certain demographics as whole have worse experiences than others, generalising a group of people dismisses both the struggles and contributions of individuals.

Not everyone has the patience to deal with recalcitrant people and that is fair enough. There is also only so long you can try understand someone before you accept they may be a lost cause, but it is important that we try, and equally important that we move away from painting everyone with the same brush. If we are to change people’s minds, we need to understand who they are, what drives them and treat them like we would treat anyone else.