When I was asked to write a Mahi Story, the first thing that popped into my mind was an amazing TED talk by Johann Hari entitled Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong. Hari talks about addiction as a health issue and how Portugal dramatically reduced drug use rates by decriminalizing all drugs. He shared scientific research carried out with rats, where rats alone in an empty cage could choose between normal water and water with cocaine added. Unsurprisingly, almost all the rats became addicted. A second, much luckier, group of rats were housed in a large cage, with friends and fun activities. These rats hardly drank the cocaine-spiked water. For these rats, the connection with others protected them from needing to be drugged; their connections created authentic, interesting lives.
We can learn a lot from this TED talk. For many years, the presiding medical mental health wisdom has been to treat people as individuals; to view their experiences as solely related to them. However, we know that people exist in families and extended whānau. We know that people who experience mental distress are often parents, partners, and are integral members of larger family systems. We know that their unwellness impacts the whole whānau; when one’s loved one is hurting, we hurt, too. But we can also flip that idea on its side and recognise that the whole whānau can impact and support a person’s wellbeing and recovery. In Aotearoa New Zealand right now we are challenging the long-held beliefs about our mental health system, particularly the need for coercion and control in our clinical services, and I’m excited for whānau support to be a much larger part of supporting recovery. Whānau are often an untapped resource, they show up out of love, work 24/7, and will still be around once the crisis has passed and the dust has settled.
When I started my career in mental health more than 20 years ago, the large psychiatric hospitals had recently closed and many of the tangata whai ora I was working with had spent years living there. Many people no longer had connections to their families as these institutions often discouraged whānau contact and made maintaining relationships difficult. This created almost a generation of people experiencing mental illness without family support.
Now, in 2023, I can look back on that period and see examples of the changes that have happened in our sector since then. Every day families approach Yellow Brick Road seeking help to support their loved one’s recovery journey. It is our privilege to empower them with resources and skills to support their efforts. At Yellow Brick Road, we provide whānau support nationally (across 12 locations) to ensure families are well-equipped to support their loved ones experiencing mental distress. We offer emotional support, skills like radical acceptance and validation, and whānau peer support and education programs including Waves (a program for those bereaved by suicide) and programs around emotional dysregulation.
My advice for anyone working in mental health would be to look beyond the individual sitting in front of you, talk to them about the connections they value, and incorporate those into your work. Chances are you will find others working towards the same goal as you.
Jade has worked for Yellow Brick Road and formerly Supporting Families NZ for a total of seven years, in both support worker and management roles. Add to that another dozen or more years in the mental health sector, and here is someone who knows our organisation and wider sector very well. With lived experience and a young family to care for, she completely grasps families and their needs and is committed to creating equitable and compassionate services and building a kete of skills and tools for the whānau we support and also Yellow Brick Road staff.
Hari, J. (2015). Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong [Video]. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/johann_hari_everything_you_think_you_know_about_addiction_is_wrong