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The Nation: mental health advocate Jazz Thornton

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd interviews mental health advocate Jazz Thornton 6/10/18

Jazz Thornton from mental health advocacy group 'Voices of Hope' says the current mental health system is seriously under-resourced. "Unless you are very wealthy or on your deathbed there is nothing available to you. If you say 'I am feeling suicidal;' they will say, 'Come back when you've tried to kill yourself."

In her submission to the government’s Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry, Jazz has called for more funding, especially in mental health wards and respite centres. “There’s usually 12 beds available within certain wards across Auckland. And so people who are high-end suicidal are...going against people who are high-end schizophrenic.”

Jazz, who has had a long battle with mental health and survived 14 suicide attempts, says she experienced a "one in, one out" policy in the mental health system.“At the moment people are going into the hospital for maybe, like, a day or two and then because of the pressing issue, they’re getting kicked out. It’s kind of like a one in, one out kind of thing.”

Simon Shepherd: Welcome back. After 14 suicide attempts and a long battle with mental illness, Jazz Thornton co-founded the advocacy group Voices of Hope to help others going through similar struggles. Her first short film, called ‘Dear Suicidal Me’, made international headlines. Now she’s got a web series and a documentary in the works. The 23-year-old film director is speaking about her experiences at TEDxAuckland next weekend, and she joins me now. Thanks for coming on the programme. So that short first film, ‘Dear Suicidal Me’, has been viewed online 80 million times, which is amazing. Why do you think it resonated so much?

Jazz Thornton: I think when I was thinking up the idea for the video, I wanted people who are struggling to be able to identify with one part of it, because I know that hearing inspirational stories is great, but when you’re struggling, you can only kind of see the person who now is in front of you, and you struggle to identify with them struggling. And so I got four people to read out their suicide notes from when they tried to take their life. And then I got everyone to write a letter called ‘Dear Suicidal Me’, which was so hope filled. So people who were struggling identified with that first part and were like, ‘Okay, that’s exactly how I’m feeling’. And then they heard everyone be like, ‘Dear Suicidal Me, I know that right now it feels like you can’t do it, but what you don’t know is you’re about to become an award-winning actor, you’re going to be a father, you’re going to travel the world’.

So they can’t see into the future, people going through these problems.


So that’s what you’re trying to get them to look to.

Yes, yeah.

All right. So you’re now working on a web series about mental health and you yourself are the focus of a documentary called ‘The Silence Project’. What do you hope these projects are going to achieve?

So the series that I’m directing is very much trying to— we’re constantly talking about ‘we need to find solutions, we need to find solutions’. And I think that the only way to find solutions is to look at what it is that we need to solve.


So that’s what the series is, kind of, looking at. We’re looking into the life of a particular girl whose story and situation pinpoints many areas where systems and people failed her, and the outcome was a tragic one. And then the film is very much all hope based. And it’s, kind of, how do we see these systems change. And, yeah, hitting both people who are suicidal, but also those who are surrounding those people who are suicidal and saying, ‘These are the mind sets that need to change, in order for our statistics to change’.

Well, the statistics that you mention are terrible, the highest level since records started — 668 people died by suicide last year. Why isn’t the current system working?

The current system’s not working because unless you are very wealthy or you’re on your deathbed, there is nothing available for you. You are told— If you’re saying, ‘I’m feeling suicidal’, they will say, ‘Come back when you’ve tried to kill yourself’. So at the moment, we’re being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. And we’re wanting to build the fence at the top, but we’re not willing to build the fence at the top.

Right. So it has to be an extreme case before you get attention.


Have you seen that yourself?

Yes, I have. I mean, there was one time that I quite severely tried to take my life. I was in a coma, and then I came out of that, was in the medical ward for a little bit, for a few days. And then a psychologist came and saw me for about, oh, seven minutes or so and then let me walk home. Because in her eyes, I wasn’t a worst case, even though I had literally nearly just died. And then there was another time that I had told a worker that I was about to take my life, that I had method to do so in my car, and she let me leave. And so it really is kind of this thing that unless you have already tried— and even then, it’s specific cases, because the system is so overworked.

Should we be talking about this that openly?

I think so. I think that that’s the only way that we’re actually going to see change or else everything stays under. People are so afraid of talking about suicide, because they think that it’s going to trigger other people to take their own lives, but the reality is something— talking about suicide doesn’t make someone suicidal. It simply reveals what’s already there.

Because that seems to be the fear. That’s why we are tentative about talking about suicide.

Yeah, yeah. But that’s not a thing. People watching something like ’13 Reasons Why’ or looking at media, that doesn’t make someone suicidal. And so people who are going through this, they are now going, ‘Okay, I’m not the only one going through this. I’m going to ask for help.’ Where we’re lacking is that there is no help.

Right. Well, let’s talk about some specific examples about that. We’ve had— 20 to 24-year-olds are some of the worst affected; university students among that age group. And they say they’re having to wait weeks to access student counselling. Should the government be stepping in there?

One hundred percent. Yeah, the government needs to be releasing funding into that area. I think organisations like what we’re doing and like what other people are doing and even the universities themselves — they’re getting people to a place where they can see hope, and they’re going, ‘Okay, maybe my life is worth fighting for. I’m going to ask for help.’ And then they’re getting put on these week, month-long waiting lists. And I think that if we want to be able to see the change, the change starts with not only us, but seeing the government actually stepping in and providing funding.

Well, I should point out though that the government, or the Green Party, has the policy of $10 million for free under 25s counselling. Is that the kind of programme that you’re hoping will make a difference?

Yes, definitely, definitely. That’s the kind of thing that’s building a fence at the top. That’s the kind of thing that the very first time someone says, ‘I need help’, being able to access that help is key to ensure they’re not needing to escalate their actions before they get the help they needed down here.

But the process to get that help at the top of the cliff, as you say, is going to take a while. $10 million doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to be safe.

Definitely. Yeah, it’s something that, unfortunately, is going to take time to, obviously, install and that kind of thing. And with the pressing issues, it’s something that we have to act on fast or else our statistics are going to continue to rise.

Okay. So you’ve made a submission to the government’s Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry. What did you hope to get across to them?

It was all around the area of funding, especially within mental health wards. You know, there’s often, kind of, usually 12 beds available within certain wards across Auckland. And so people who are high-end suicidal are — and I don’t want to use the word ‘competing’ — but, you know, are going against people who are high-end schizophrenic and all of that kind of thing. So there’s very minimal space for you to go in. And so funding for beds in hospitals and in respite centres is massive, because at the moment people are going in to hospital for maybe, like, a day or two and then because of the pressing issue, they’re getting kicked out. It’s kind of like a one in, one out kind of thing, which I saw when I was in a mental health ward when I was—

There is such demand for beds that as soon as you have a glimmer of being well, you’re being told to leave.

Yeah. Yeah. And then it is like, ‘Oh, go out there, and then someone will call you in the next few days’. And then that goes for maybe a couple of weeks, and then you’re out of the system.

So what does it take— what will it take for this inquiry to find a way to get confidence back in the mental health system?

I think it’s going to take people of influence and people in government to actually stand up and to actually be willing to talk about it and be willing to not just speak, but then follow it up with action, not be afraid to try things that are new, because everyone’s so, like, ‘Oh, there’s not enough evidence in this’. But we’re not going to be able to get evidence unless we actually try. And what we’re doing is not working.


There’s evidence. It’s everywhere. It’s not working. And so we need to see people stepping up. We need to see them willing to invest into this area.

One of the areas where it’s not working which doesn’t get as much spotlight shone on it as the young people is the older— the men in their 40s. Now you’ve been speaking to CEOs and finance executives recently. What sort of reaction have you had from them about the high level of suicide among that age group?

It’s been incredible when I’ve been in those different environments. Suicide does not discriminate, and that is evident when you’re speaking to those kinds of people. When I was speaking at the finance conference, it was 400 CEOs. And I remember going up there, and as I was looking around, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Everyone was crying. I had people coming up to me afterwards. One that, kind of, stands out in particular saying that he had walked into that room deciding that he wanted to take his life, but he felt guilty about it, because on paper his life looked perfect — you know, wife, kids, owns his own house. But then as he was listening to me speak, he was like, ‘I am now going to tell my wife what’s going on. I can’t live like this anymore.’ And what’s become a very common thing is that whole stigma around men, like, ‘We don’t talk about things. We’re strong. We don’t do that.’ And that is the stigma killing their own generation.

Really? So this ‘she’ll be right’, ‘just harden up’ attitude?

Yep, very much so. I heard Mark Richardson was talking about how our generation just need to harden up on a show recently. And I went on radio, and I was responding, and I was like, ‘You do realise that out of all the age brackets, you are what makes up the highest percentage of suicides in our country. Do not put on to the younger generation the beliefs that is killing your own generation.’ That doesn’t work anymore — the ‘harden up’, ‘she’ll be right’.

So people of my age group do take that kind of attitude. Does that trickle down as an example to the younger generation?

Definitely. Especially into our males, I think. I think girls are a lot better at talking about things. But males, they look up to their fathers, they look up to the men of this nation, and they see men who are looking to be succeeding in business or things like that, and they’re the people that they’re mimicking. And so that 20 to 24 age bracket that we’ve seen increase, they’re the ones who’ve adapted those kind of attitudes.

Just finally, what advice would you give to someone whose friends and family are actually dealing with mental health illnesses or mental health problems?

I think one of the biggest things that helped me when I was going through this time is that the people around me where never just like, ‘Oh, it will be okay. There’s always hope.’ Because when you’re feeling like that, that does nothing for you. And so what they did is that there was a lot of tough love there, but they chose to continuously speak into my future. Because when you’re struggling to that extent, you really can’t see into the future, and it is impossible to fight for your life if you don’t know what you’re fighting for. And so speak into their future, speak hope, speak against their core beliefs. For me, it was, ‘I’m unlovable. I’m a burden.’ So those closest to me were like, ‘Jazz, I love you.’

So they need to be challenged.

Yeah, definitely, all the time. The soppy fear of just going ‘Oh, it’s okay. It’ll be okay’ does nothing. It’s not working. They need to be challenged. They need to be taught how to fight and what are the practical things that they can do to help fight through this.

Jazz Thornton from Voices of Hope, thank you so much for your time.

Thank you.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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