Maintaining mental wellbeing during COVID-19 – In conversation with Taimi Allan – Podcast Episode 22

In this podcast, Managing Partner Sally Nicholes is joined by Taimi Allan, CEO of Changing Minds, to discuss the importance of maintaining mental resilience and wellbeing during, particularly at the moment. Changing Minds is a Mental Health not for profit organisation which is based in New Zealand, providing mental health support and services. This podcast outlines the various mental health impacts that are resulting from the lockdown condition, and the ways we can move forward with resilience.

 

Sally:

Good morning, my name is Sally Nicholes, Managing Partner of Nicholes Family Lawyers and I am very excited to be joined today, across the Tasman, by one of our  New Zealand compatriots, Taimi Allan, and also a special appearance from her son, Flynn Allan.  Taimi is the CEO of Changing Minds, a mental health, not-for-profit based organisation in New Zealand, and she also advises in Australia.

Changing Minds has the unique distinction of being led and staffed by people who have recovered from mental health or addiction issues.  They support and champion the voices of people who access mental health and addiction services.  Taimi, I’m very excited to have you and also to have our editor and director, a very talented young student, Flynn Allan, who is your son, joining us, and who will contribute to this podcast.

Taimi:

I think I’m the only one of our family who lives overseas now, so it is nice to see you, Flynn!

Flynn:

Nice to see you too, how is COVID going?

Sally:

Congratulations New Zealand, we are so happy for you, and we really hope, particularly given the impact on people’s mental health, that Australia does as well. Congratulations to your Prime Minister for her amazing leadership in getting you there.  We talk about the health issues of COVID but also of course, the mental health issues which arise from it must be just – you’ve been in the front line – so shocking.   But looking at things I’d like to highlight how are people with mental distress coping during lockdown?

Taimi:

That’s an interesting question because it’s not necessarily the people that already were known to us with mental distress that we have been worried about during lockdown, it is the new people, the new cases, the people who have known what anxiety and depression and isolation feel like before, so for the most part, those we have been supporting for many years or weeks or months who are part of our services have found the lockdown really empowering, they are not on waiting-lists to see people any more, their support staff have been reaching out to them every day by telephone, delivering food parcels, they’ve been meeting them at the end of the driveway.

Changing Minds is part of the government’s psycho-social response, they call it, so we got a little bit of money to extend one of our programs to put events online for people, so we have – it’s a Maori expression, which means well-being sessions.  These are available online so anyone can join them from anywhere in the world though obviously they are geared towards New Zealanders.  So we just said: what is it that has helped you with your wellbeing so we have been doing sessions like yoga and fitness and baking and art classes and journaling and mindful meditation and therapy.  In all of the sessions you’ve got a support person, a peer-support person and someone doing the technical Zoom-type stuff.

So people are coming along to do what they need to do to connect with other people but actually they know that there is a support person there.  So it is kind of like got over the fear or stigma of reaching out to mental health services for people who for once in their life, this is a really scary situation and those people who have been using mental health services are the ones we are using as our support people because they can pay back, they can go: you know what, I know exactly what it is like to feel really anxious and it is totally normal to feel really anxious at this time, because the world is going through an event that we have never done before so it’s OK to feel a bit wobbly about what the future looks like, but those people who have had trauma backgrounds and the tables have now flipped a bit and now they are the support people for these sessions.  We have just found that this is quite exciting, you know we are transforming the way the mental health system works.

Sally:

And that is such a great point to say, that people who have been through trauma and they have come through it in a really constructive and positive way, they have got resilience. I’ve actually found that it is younger people who maybe have not had the same years of experience  who have had to tackle some difficult issues, they are the ones who are finding the self-isolation really hard.

Taimi:

Yes and I think if we talk about it from a family perspective, in New Zealand we talk about farno which means the people you call your family even if they are not related by blood.  If there have already been challenges in that family or that farno before we went into our bubble, then that kind of escalated those challenges because you are with them all the time so it has been quite tough, particularly if someone had started a divorce or a separation before they went into lockdown and then found themselves in each other’s company, so there’s  been a lot of support to those families going through that to try and manage new ways of separating and hardship.

Changing Minds is really known for telling people the good news stories- there’s plenty of bad news stories out there and I think we all probably know of a family who is in hardship right now, but when I knew I was to do this podcast, I reached out to some of our champions and advocates, we have hundreds of them, and asked them about their experiences. One of them told me that it has been really positive for them because they have been able to set new boundaries with their partner about things that ordinarily they would have been really annoyed about, or couldn’t cope with …but actually we don’t have a choice now, we have to live in the same house until this is over, so what are some new rules that we need to set up so setting up some really firm boundaries and rules with each other and really helping, so separating what the duties of the household and what the spaces of the household were,  were helpful to them and I heard from another family who were already in separation but it was really important for the children for them to be together, so it turned out that they had a property near the beach so he went and drove his boat to the beach and he lived in the boat, and she lived in the house but the children were able to share that property with them  and know where mum and dad both were, but they could have separate lives, so he could go home to the boat every night and the kids could get used to what separation looked like.

So from my perspective talking to people, regardless of whether it was a family separation or whether people were in isolation, what I have really drawn from that is the incredibly innovative ways people have found to cope and connect.  One of the things I would like us to remember when we go back to whatever the new normal looks like is that whatever ways we have found to connect with people, whether it is, you know, Flynn and I catch up for a pizza on a Friday night by zoom, or we get the kids to cook with grandma, muffins or chocolate chip cookies of a weekend, you know, we were not doing that before, we were having a phone call now and then, or flicking each other a text message.  We weren’t actually seeing each other, and we have made ourselves see each other over this time and I don’t want us to go back to normal where we become isolated again because we have not been making those inroads.  So everyone knows what they have been doing to connect with people and I’m just encouraging people to keep that up when normality resumes.

Sally:

Yes, I think that we found that in the practice, we got people out very very quickly but I encouraged people to Facetime rather than having a phone call because I think people did feel really disengaged. It is so important when work, like school, is such a big part of your life and it organises your life, and I think that camaraderie…..people really miss the camaraderie around the office, for example and it is hopefully a safe and fun place for people and lacking that camaraderie was a little bit hard for some of our staff, though Flynn and I got to see each other!

Taimi:

I think also that what I’m hearing from people who are just coming out of their shell about how tough things have been for them during this time is that…many people who have not had mental health or addiction problems before what I like to call their inner-Trump but for the very first time.  You know, that negative voice that tells you fake news a lot, the inner critic, the one that tells you you are not good enough, maybe you have lost your job, you are not coping; this is the time you should have eaten well and done your fitness regime and started a new project, and studied, and: I’m not doing all those things and for many people, we are so busy in our lives, in our work and social life, that we have not had to face that inner critic, that Trump that lives inside us before this moment in time.  We are spending a lot more time on our own and reflecting, and some of that reflective process – if you haven’t been through a practice where you are learning to be an observer and balance those thoughts, they can be quite distressing.

Sally:

Yes, I think that negative narrative is something that  –  particularly A type personalities have as well, and I know we have chatted about that before but I agree.  Some of the phone calls that I was getting from people who needed support were very much fear-based, but also myth-busting with some of the things.  I don’t know what was happening in New Zealand but in Australia there was paralysis for 10 days, sheer paralysis, so clients who we had heard from the week before, we suddenly did not hear from them or from what I understand it was: am I at risk, are the courts still actually open so we had to myth-bust a bit, so if you were at risk, there were still people to help you.  We had to almost write our own navigation; there was no “this is so unprecedented”.

Taimi:

There is plenty out there now, but we are almost through it, but you are right, we were all kind of navigating that order and creating resources and stuff; there was nothing to go by, we have not done this before, but you are right – insecurity does breed paralysis and if you don’t know what is coming next, if you don’t know what your future looks like, it is very easy for that negative thought spiral to get out of control. But I think the first thing is to recognise that it is just a thought, it is not necessarily reality, and once you can become the observer of that you can then work on: what is it that I can change and what is it I just have to accept until we discover what the future looks like, we can’t pre-empt what that is.

Sally:

One of the things that we have noticed, I was talking to the CEO of PANDA who looks after new parents and parents who are expecting.  The majority of people they help are mums (Taimi: PANDA, I have worked with them before)  Oh great and they mentioned to me, their concern was that the reporting of domestic violence had actually decreased and they felt highly concerned. They felt that without maternal health nurses doing actual health checks and also on the incidence of violence, that these women were in particular at high risk, so in addition to that negative bias, how do you think isolation has affected mental well-being, for example, has there been an increase in suicides?

Taimi:

There are three things to address there, and this is such an important conversation, so we have got to look at myth-busting and we have to work out what the real problems are.  So if I first touch on family violence and some of those issue,  good and bad, and then touch on suicide, we need to touch both of those things.  So firstly, we also suspect that (we can’t know till we get the data in) that family violence may have increased during this time and that is to be expected at a time like this. It is never OK but it is to be expected, but one of the amazing things which has come out of the IIHML which is the International Initiative for Mental Health Leadership, so it is all the mental health leaders from all across the world sharing information with each other. One of the wonderful things we have discovered which actually began in France was that local pharmacies and other shops that were open and on social media there became codes, code words which enabled people to reach out to other people if they were in a family violence situation that didn’t sound like that was what they were telling.

So on social media it was reaching out to a friend and saying: Can I buy some of your make-up, and in France, I’m not sure what the code-word was when you went in to the pharmacy but actually, from narrative reports coming in from the IIHML, this has actually been a really positive thing to come out of managing the crisis around family violence. So there are listeners out there who…

Sally:

I haven’t actually heard that yet, I think that is an amazing initiative.

Taimi:

It was something that was going on in bars before that, in bars….”was Sally working today” was the code you used to the barman, if there was someone you were worried about when you wanted to leave the bar for the night and you were afraid of being followed.  So it is about connecting with whoever your network is and if it’s not a code-word that already exists by a bit of a search then you can actually work out with other people to establish what that code-word might be for you.  Also there are organisations that have done that through their website, so over here in New Zealand there is the Warehouse, I think there is one in Australia as well, and there is a button on their website that’s hidden where you can ..it looks like you are doing some online shopping but you can actually click on that button and report family violence.

So there are all those sorts of initiatives.  But I guess they are not initiatives which people want to advertise because that puts people in danger so they rely on word-of-mouth so people know that these things exist. That is the family violence stuff. The suicide is an important myth to address because there has been talk of suicides going up at this time and I need to tell you that this is not true – suicides have not increased.  Our coroner released provisional statistics in New Zealand to say that suicides during COVID and during lockdowns actually decreased – that is provisional data. And the thing to remember around suicides is that the process is long and drawn-out to work out whether a self-inflicted death is a suicide.  You would know, Sally, the coroner is a legal test about whether a self-inflicted death is a suicide. For many reasons they are often not ruled as suicide and the coroner won’t take jurisdiction.  Those reasons might range from it might be someone under age so the coroner might not believe, in terms of a legal test, that that person knew that the actions they were taking were going to be permanent, so yes, it is absolutely self-inflicted, but they don’t truly believe for example that a 14 year old really had the wherewithal that: I’m never going to come back from this – so they won’t rule that as a suicide.

And for many other reasons, such as cultural reasons or age reasons, families may lean on the coroner to not rule it as a suicide because of the shame and the stigma and the fear surrounding that ruling; they might be really mindful of the family’s needs within that. So there’s a lot of problems in ruling things as a suicide but also that process takes 2 to 3 years, so we won’t actually know the fallout for this for another 2 years. Another thing worth mentioning is that it is really important for people to realise is that there is no such thing as good news re suicide, every single death is a horrible thing that affects at least 120 people – the knock-on effects of that. Our aim across the world should be no suicides.  But when we talk about  it in the media, we have got to remember, by just talking about suicides when we talk about methods, it can actually increase and trigger people to take on that behaviour, particularly if it is glorified, when people are celebrated about their lives, we have to be very careful about how we manage that.

But secondly, when we report it,  there is often talk about our rates going up and it is particularly important to make a distinction between what are rates and what are numbers. Our rates are quite stable over the years, I think our highest rate was back between 2009 and 2014, but actually because of our population increase the numbers increase.  But in relation to our population expansion, the rates may be stabilising or even going down.  Whilst I said that there is no good news with suicides, it is important to recognise why our rates are going down and do more of those prevention efforts.

Sally:

Yes, I noticed on media reports where there has been an apparent suicide, it’s awful, you read between the lines and you often see underneath: Lifeline help line, if you are suffering …or Beyond Blue, you can contact…..and so you read between the lines and I assume there is a media profile in Australia to do exactly what you are saying, to not glorify, to not go into details at all, I assume not to trigger people.  I’ve never actually asked anyone, but is that the case, is that why the details are left out?

Taimi:

Yes, that’s right, we know from research to never mention the method or the place in time, if that place in time is tied to the method.  We have to remember that this is somebody’s person, somebody’s partner, somebody’s child or mother and how we talk about it in the media is going to affect those people around them.  We want to be able to celebrate somebody’s life but we don’t want to make it OK for people to think that that’s a way out of their problems. The difficulty with suicide prevention is that there is no one thing that causes someone to want to self-harm or take their own life, and there is no one thing that will fix it.  And I talk about it a lot as a bucket, so we all have a bucket in our lives and that is our coping, right, and the bucket has some water in it, so every time a problem comes along, we throw a pebble in the bucket so the water level rises.  Each one of those problems adds to the level of the water.  If the bucket gets full, it takes only one tiny pebble to spill over, and us not be able to cope with that situation any more.

The solution isn’t just to remove the last pebble, the solution is to look at what are all the other pebbles in the bucket and each one of these requires a separate solution.  So if there is family violence, there is a lot of trauma that goes with that which has to be healed,  and a lot of relationship issues which have to be talked over.  If it is a financial thing – we had a case yesterday where we were talking about the life of a farmer which led to his tragic loss.  It wasn’t just the thing that was the tipping point at that moment, it was what is the trauma that has gone before, what are the financial implications of perhaps losing a farm, or a wife losing a partner, the kids being cross with you, having a fight with someone at work: all of these things are pebbles that can cause the bucket to overflow and spill over.

Sally:

And if anyone is listening to this, we will make sure that we have a whole series of resources put actually next to the podcast so that people can access them, including Warehouse, I think that would be really helpful.  So what have been the biggest things from a mental health and addiction perspective in COVID?

Taimi:

Australia and New Zealand have this enormous cultural problem with alcohol. One of the problems we saw when we were looking at suicide, mortality and family violence, is that we absolutely know that alcohol is an enormous contributor to that.  The argument always goes: if you are OK with alcohol, why should I be limited with that when I go to the shop, and why is it not an essential item? There’s been many jokes and memes going about the internet about alcohol being an essential item, but if we are looking at it to prevent death and prevent violence, we lost a big opportunity.  Our big opportunity was that we could very easily have restricted the sale of alcohol during this time; we would have prevented mishaps, violence and death and that is the bottom line.  Certainly from a mental health and addiction perspective, I feel quite sad about that, that we missed that opportunity. Another problem was that of increased isolation for people who were already isolated, I’m thinking particularly of those in rest-homes who had dementia, and who didn’t really understand why their family was not visiting them anymore.  I heard some really sad stories about families seeing their loved ones through windows or on IPads and their loved one thinking that they are being punished, that the families are not visiting them, that somehow they don’t have the cognitive abilities to be able to understand what is going on.

But some of the really great things were that we were able very quickly to reduce waiting times, we were able very quickly, because motels and hotels were empty to give emergency housing to the homeless and rough sleepers but the flip side was that businesses were suffering because of not getting the income and there is enormous economic hardship on families so it is a balancing act: there are as many good stories as there are negative ones.

Sally:

What about the positive stories? What positive things have come out of COVID?

Taimi:

So many – most people would say that working from home was a positive – a lot of people have found their flow in working from home and businesses have certainly – in my own business, we doubled our staff over time as essential workers, and we no longer decided that those workers needed to come from Auckland, that is where our office is based, but we now have workers from Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington, Nelson; technology has allowed us to be able to do that and people are being really productive and in fact what we were able to do as a business was to give people back their commute time as what we called a “well-being hour”. Normally we would normally spend half an hour each way in getting to work; we said, well, don’t spend that hour working, if you are going to walk the talk and be someone really powerful, how are you going to practise your own well-being in that time.  So that is one of the things we are going to continue doing, even now when we are back at the office.

Other great things: better hygiene, we were easily bringing colds and flu into the workplace and thinking it was no big deal, we were not considering the vulnerable parts of our community that have immune difficulties or were pregnant or otherwise needed you to keep up with your hygiene, and we didn’t because we thought it was better to battle on with a cold than not.

Sally:

And I think Australians are similar in personality, too, in thinking well I’ve got that cold but I’ll still go to work because look, I’ve got a good work ethic, but now we may think a bit more about colleagues and other people and stay at home.

Taimi:

And we have to remember that the flu still kills thousands of people a year, so if we can reduce that, then from a workplace perspective not only are we saving lives but we are being more productive by keeping the workplace healthy.

We have had an increase in volunteering both here in New Zealand and in Australia and overseas, people have been volunteering, deciding what can I do with myself during this time to help other people. For example, the British government asked for a quarter of a million volunteers and got three times that number with their volunteering, there are good news stories, people are more likely to be checking on their elderly neighbours, over here we have our cultural elders and people are reaching out to them and making sure they are safe and well and teaching them technology whereas in the past we thought grandpa didn’t need to know this, it is for young people, but now we are thinking we can’t actually see you so we are going to teach you how to use Zoom or WhatsApp or whatever.

Flynn:

Well, there’s the podcasts!  They wouldn’t have happened without COVID, either.

Taimi:

And our well-being sessions, we would have stuck to our local events; now we are doing 20 events a week online for anyone who has access to a device. Those offenders who were not so bad, were allowed to go home, so we are emptying our prisons, so less of a financial burden on prisons and people are able to connect, helping people out of things like addiction or recidivism is helped by people connecting more with their communities, we’ve been able to do that.  There are lots of really great things that have come out of the necessities that surrounded COVID-19 crisis.

Sally:

Flynn, what have you seen, as a young person, how have you found it? Your peers?

Flynn:

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do these podcasts, otherwise I would have been unemployed, and I think that this is an advantage over a lot of people who don’t even have jobs. As a young person used to living with my family in New Zealand – I don’t think it would have been hard if it wasn’t COVID because I think just the idea that I can’t go home if I wanted to, it makes you feel….it’s a lot of weight to put on yourself.

Taimi:

Is it made easier, Flynn, by knowing that everyone is in the same boat?

Flynn:

Yes, it is, but obviously it is not going to make it any easier.

Sally:

It’s the freedom of movement which we all took for granted, travel is such a positive thing so that would be hard.  What about amongst your peer group, did you find that your peers who were used to socialising which is so much a part of their culture, did they find it hard?

Flynn:

Well, I live in a generation where we are all playing online games anyway, so it’s like if I want to hang out with friends, I go well I’m playing this at this time and can I join, and they say: Sure, so I’m still catching up with mates, I don’t think it is hard for our generation because we are used to a lot of online activity.

Taimi:

And you young guys found new Apps, us oldies use things like Zoom but you seem to be using WhatsApp a lot more, House Parties, apps where you can play games with people, yes?

Flynn:

Yes, well I think Zoom is in the majority because we all do classes on that. I think school is much more difficult and that’s a problem but it’s nice knowing that everyone is on the same level, and you get stress on …based on you have to do tests online and you have to learn all of these things, and sometimes you can become unmotivated because you are sitting down all day, and it’s like: am I getting enough fitness and you have all those things build up so it is good to know that everyone is in the same position, that no one is ahead of you, no one is out there going: oh well, I’m doing this and well I’m changing the world.  Everyone is in a hibernating mode, just waiting for it to pass over – it’s actually quite relaxing to be honest, it’s kind of: well, I don’t need to be better than anyone right now so I will just sit back and relax for a while. So it’s exertion, it’s hard, but it also has some positives, like you were saying.

Taimi:

And like wearing Ugg boots all the time! I can’t believe I’m back in high heels, when did that happen!

Sally:

It was very confronting trying to fit into my shirt to come back to the office and that’s been a positive, probably good for our posture to be out of heels.

Taimi:

Yes, there’s only so many meetings that you can chuck a scarf on the outside of your  pajamas and you pretend that you are in work attire.

Flynn:

So the whole issue of: I’m putting weight on, I feel really bad, you talk or have conversations with others and you say well, everyone is putting on weight so everyone is making excuses.

Sally:

So what can people do to stay strong and resolute? I’d like to end the podcast on a positive note.

Taimi:

The first thing we have to remember is that regardless of whether you are enjoying your Ugg boots at home, this is a world crisis and it’s important to understand that we don’t know what is coming next, and it is OK to feel anxious and a bit wobbly about what is going to happen in the future.  Now is probably not the time to start new things and feel really down about yourself losing weight and doing exercise and all the things you do – actually this time is about consolidating self-care.  I hate labels but I like to change what the labels are, so I’ve got this acronym called OCD that has got nothing to do with obsessions or compulsions but is actually about observing, so observe what is going on, step outside yourself and actually watch what are those thoughts that are coming in that are not helping me, what of my behaviour that I am feeling guilty about, what are the things that are really bugging me right now, then find a way of connecting with others whether that is online or at the end of the driveway or on the phone, however it is, try and find a way of connecting whatever are the things that make you feel good.

And then distract – this is the time to chill out and watch a bit of Netflix, or read that book, this is the time to surf the internet and find new ideas.  Quite a lot of people I have spoken to, even though they didn’t lose their job, they were just in a hiatus, they have decided that this is the time they were waiting for to make the change, they have had some time to reflect on whether this is this the career that they want, this is the challenge.  In New Zealand, the government is giving us a lot of funding to retrain if we want to, and a lot of people are taking up that opportunity.

So working out at this time: what do I want to do next, is the trajectory an opportunity for me, and I think the most important thing is (going back to the leadership that our Prime Minister has given), it’s really important to be kind right now, particularly at a time when we are seeing a lot of global turmoil and a lot of activism, and a lot of things that we really were not thinking about that really matter to us right now – there’s also a lot of what comes with that – online trolling and some meanness.  So we have to be really mindful and really purposeful about being kind, not only to other people and sticking up for them, but mostly being kind to yourself.

Sally:

Talking to an executive coach called Mim Bartlett and we talked about being kind giving you actual serotonin, it actually does make you feel good, for medical reasons and this is particularly a time to be kind, to give back, to see what you can do, and  helping  others is a wonderful distraction.  We were talking before about the podcast itself, we were in a vacuum and by getting all these amazing stakeholders like yourself to allow those who might feel isolated to listen to and say: no you are not in a vacuum, because our whole world paralysed over those first 10 days, that was my theory, but to then to be able to work out and to communicate and work with stakeholders and say: what would you do in your space, for anyone listening, and I think having you talk about mental health in such a constructive and also positive way during this time to help people navigate who want to listen, is just fabulous.

Taimi. 

I really appreciate it and I don’t think there is much of a cross-cultural difference for mental health particularly between Australia and New Zealand, but I love that concept of the family and and I often talk about family of choice, what do you call it?

Taimi:

Wanau, and I’d like to finish with this: a lot of people talk to me and want to know what it is that they can do to help other people.  All I would say is: you don’t need to know how to help, you don’t need to be an expert in that space. People will most likely reach out to others that they know and love and trust first before they will reach out to Lifeline or a help line and that’s normal and you don’t have to panic about that moment, even if that person says to you: I’m feeling suicidal, that is not a moment of panic, it’s a moment of being really grateful that they have brought that knowledge to you and trust you .  Now you need to look after yourself in that space, but you don’t have to panic and you don’t have to know what to do because mostly people just need an ear, they need someone to listen to and maybe a shoulder to cry on and then and it is your job to sit alongside them and work out what it is that they want to do next to start unpicking the pebbles from the bucket.

Sally:

I love the bucket analogy, I’m going to take that one with me as well as many of the things you have said today, helping someone to empty that bucket is such a wonderful thing to be able to do and to contribute to, so thank you so much Taimi, I really appreciate your time and Flynn, thank you also!

 

Disclaimer: Nicholes Family Lawyers intends the information provided in this podcast as general information only, please contact Nicholes Family lawyers if you require specific information and advise in relation to any family law matter.

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