Sarah was one of many senior students invited to participate in her school’s annual speech competition. The fifteen-year-old chose to talk about mental health discrimination, because she knows of students who have personal experience of mental distress.
She hadn’t realised discrimination was such a big issue, however, until she started researching the content for her speech.
“One person I know mentioned how hard it is to find help,” Sarah recalls. “They were uncertain where to go for support and how people would react if they told them what they were going through.”
“I started by looking at things from this personal angle, and then realised discrimination was much bigger than just the experiences of people I know, it affects people of all ages and backgrounds,” she says. “I wanted to confront the issue.”
Sarah was determined to ensure people understood that support for mental distress should be no different that the kindness people receive when they are physically unwell.
”We are fine with mentioning a family friend undergoing treatment for a broken leg,” she says in her speech. “But, if a loved one was struggling with a mental health problem, would you have the same conversation? Most people would not. Yet, these are people’s lives, and as a society we need to accept it, recognize it, and start asking what can we do to help.”
Sarah goes on to explain how the old-fashioned view that mental health problems are something to be ashamed of has resulted in ignorance.
“The only way to break down the stigma and stereotypes is to talk about it. We need to educate New Zealanders, from the youth up, on this topic, speaking out against age-old prejudices,” she says.
Sarah’s very aware that people often struggle to talk about any mental distress. “Not many are brave enough to speak out,” she says.
But she is also aware from her conversations – and the positive responses she’s had from her speech – that people find hope for themselves when they read or listen to other people’s experiences of mental distress.
“I believe that talking about mental illness does break down those barriers, as long as we listen with an open heart and an open mind, and are willing to support those who need it,” she continues.
“Once one person starts, then others feel brave enough to talk too. Even if you don’t have any personal experience, you can share what you know about mental health and help others to start talking.”
She remembers one classmate’s response vividly. “They came up to me in tears,” she says. “It was happy crying though – they were happy my speech helped people to talk about mental health, and that people seemed to understand the discrimination issue. It was very moving.”
Sarah’s speech ends with a challenge: “We can make New Zealand a country where no one needs to feels ashamed or isolated because of their illness. So what are we waiting for? Lets make a change!”
Sarah was one of only three students presenting to the entire school for the finals. She came second. She has since taken part in the United Nations Aotearoa Youth Declaration (at Auckland University in April 2016) where as part of the Hauora Wellbeing group she helped create a policy and value statement about youth mental health. Sarah has also been invited to present her speech at The Kiwanis Club of St Heliers annual public speaking contest In June.
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