Stand by Me by John Kirwan, with Elliot Bell and Kristy Louden-Bell, Penguin, ISBN 9780143570639, RRP $40.
I think it would be fair to assume I don’t need to introduce John Kirwan to my New Zealand readers but for overseas folks Sir John is an ex-All Black, possibly the best ex-All Black of all time. In our space in the world this makes him a BIG DEAL.
He’s also the face for mental health awareness in NZ, mostly through fronting a series of TV ads about depression and subsequently writing a book about his own experience with depression, called All Blacks Don’t Cry. He’s basically bucked the “harden up mate, she’ll be right, let’s get pissed*” trend that’s been pervasive in our society, which our worship of male sports stars has a lot to answer for. This makes him, in my space in the world, a BIG DEAL.
Now he’s turned his attention to teen mental health which is awesome because the more attention paid to this the better, and he brings a lot of attention. The starting point is his own fears and expectations as a parent so Stand By Me is mostly aimed at parents and caregivers of teenagers but it has a lot of good information for others who work with young people and for young people themselves.
Much like All Blacks Don’t Cry the emphasis here isn’t just on the experience of mental unwellness, it’s just as much on the experience of recovery and resilience. The text combines commentary from John Kirwan, psychologists Elliot Bell and Kristy Louden-Bell, and psychiatrist Lyndy Matthews with passages of personal experience as told by young people, and parents and caregivers of those young people.
All these viewpoints mean that the tone varies from person to person but consistently keeps the spotlight on recovery and hopefulness. No one gets the opportunity to put their judgeypants on.
It also means there’s a wide range of topics covered and readers are bound to come away with at least one piece of new knowledge or food for thought. It’s obviously a book meant to be read by those seeking help and information, and the writers and publishers have done a great job of keeping that foremost in their decision-making on content and editing.
Chapters are short but tight and the most salient points are pulled out and repeated. At the end is a comprehensive list of further resources and sources of information and help. Topics range from depression and anxiety to eating disorders and self-harm to one of the best discussions of suicide and how to talk about it that I’ve ever read.
Now we come to my soapbox moment. I’m personally affected by mental illness and especially depression, and have recently been deeply affected as a parent. It’s hard, in both instances, but perhaps a little bit more so when you’re the parent. And finding help, MAKING those that are supposed to help do so, can feel like an impossible task. So we need to talk about this, desperately, because some of our young people are really, really unhappy and we can be complete sh*ts to them (well, and each other but that’s a whole other soapbox) and they deserve so much more. We all do but they need a chance.
If you’re a parent or caregiver, if you’re a counsellor or a teacher, if you’re a young person … whatever reason you might have for being interested in the mental health and wellbeing of our young people, Stand By Me is an absolute must-read.
*For my American friends, “pissed” in NZ means drunk, not angry.