Exposing the hidden battles with anxiety

Naomi Arnold believes there is a stigma attached to having a mental illness.PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Naomi Arnold believes there is a stigma attached to having a mental illness.PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Award-winning journalist Naomi Arnold is the editor of Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety, a collection of essays that share some of the real stories behind mental health statistics.

Q What was your purpose when you started working on Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety?

When my husband developed anxiety and panic attacks, we didn't know what it was, but we went to the GP like you're meant to.

My husband is an actor, and the GP told him that since he was still able to get on stage he couldn't be that bad; he just had "an artistic personality". But he did prescribe him anti-psychotics, which made his suicidal ideation take a very dark turn for the worse.

It took us a long time to find out what an anxiety disorder was, to understand the symptoms, what was happening in his brain, and to get appropriate help, which for him turned out to be a combination of cognitive behaviour therapy and lifestyle changes.

So I wanted to produce the book that I wish we could have read to find some solidarity and frank discussion. I wanted to help people understand what this illness is, where it comes from, the many different ways it can manifest, and the many different ways it can be treated.

I wanted people with anxiety to see themselves in its pages and to understand they are not alone. I wanted people to be able to hand it to friends and family to read and say "Here, I have bookmarked some pages that explain what this is like for me and how you can help."

I also wanted to produce a set of beautiful pieces of writing. I think we have succeeded on all those fronts.

Q How would you describe this collection?

The collection has a mix of voices from people of all backgrounds. They include celebrated writers such as Ashleigh Young, Hinemoana Baker, Tusiata Avia, and our poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh. Many, however, come from different backgrounds, including music, health, science, education, parenthood, and politics, and have experience across the socioeconomic spectrum too.

We wanted to highlight how anxiety affects as many different people as possible, but we did find that the essays that we received tended to skew towards being from those who have the cultural or economic privilege of being able to reveal this health condition in public without suffering too many consequences in real life.

Authors Ashleigh Young and Wendy Parkins will join Naomi Arnold to discuss the importance of...
Authors Ashleigh Young and Wendy Parkins will join Naomi Arnold to discuss the importance of shining a light on mental health during a Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival event next month.PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
We did find that some people who were from more marginalised communities ended up feeling unsafe in having their writing about anxiety published due to the expectation or fear of fallout in their own personal lives, and pulled out at the last minute. It's up to us as editors and publishers to help writers from all backgrounds navigate those fears, and in the future I would make sure we had more diversity in the editorial panel built in from the very beginning.

Q In your introduction to Headlands, you say the number of people suffering from a diagnosed mood or anxiety disorder is increasing. Why do you think this is?

You could describe anxiety as a disease of runaway fear, and I think its rise is due to a mix of things.

For many of us life is a soup of economic inequality, racism, sexism, poor health, stressful and unstable work, and chronic pain, and a lack of sureness about the future, including the impacts of climate change, buying a house, having a secure retirement, and future job security.

The rise of social media and screen time is often blamed for making us more anxious and I think that's true, but it's also provided a valuable point of connection for many.

Q Is there still a stigma attached to having a mental illness?

Definitely. My friend, journalist Beck Eleven, recently wrote a great column about this in The Press. She described the difference in having a broken ankle and having depression.

When she broke her ankle, people were overwhelmingly solicitous and sympathetic, and she felt confident in taking the time she needed to care for herself and heal.

Wendy Parkins. PHOTO: SUPPLIED.
Wendy Parkins. PHOTO: SUPPLIED.

But having depression means you become very isolated, and sometimes full of shame. What if we treated someone having an episode of mental illness like they had suffered a bad accident? What if we surrounded the person with love, house cleaning, donations, and casseroles? If we didn't whisper behind their backs that they were malingering and should really have got over it by now and should just get out of bed and get on with things? What if there was no shame in it, if sufferers felt supported and didn't blame themselves at a deep level for being sick?

Health outcomes could be very different if our society was like that, and it just takes people being brave enough to reach in. It shouldn't depend on the sick person having to "reach out" all the time.

Q What can people coming to your panel discussion expect?

Panel discussions always take on their own life in the moment, but I expect there will be some open and inclusive discussion of our own life experiences with anxiety and mental health and that of people around us too.

I expect we'll also touch on how we write about that, and how writing about it and turning it into a story can be very different from being completely open about mental health off the page with real family and friends.

We might touch on how writing can help us make sense of what's going on inside our heads and connect with others.

Personally, I'm really looking forward to hearing from Ashleigh Young about how she navigated those questions for her Headlands essay, her poetry, her book Can You Tolerate This? and her blog writing, and from Wendy Parkins about her frank new memoir, Every morning, so far, I'm alive, which is just a perfect title for a beautiful book.

Q Why is this topic important?

Anxiety can kill, and it's really important that friends and family understand what is going on with someone as the symptoms and actions can be confusing and alienating. For example, how can you describe what it's like to find it impossible to leave the house and go to the letterbox, or to turn off the car and walk into a party?

It just doesn't make sense unless you've been there, and I'd love it if more understanding and support spread through society. I hope Headlands will contribute to that.

At the festival

• Naomi Arnold will take part in The Galloping Mind, Saturday, May 11, 10am-11am, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, as part of the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival.

Where to get help

Suicide/depression related

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Depression healthline: 0800 611 116

Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Alcohol Drug Helpline: 0800 787 797

General mental health inquiries: 0800 44 33 66

The Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757



One GP attributed it to smoking cigarettes.

It is possible that 'minor' tranquillisers can help the sufferer to work, controlling panic attack until fuller treatment. However, they are 'benzo' and reportedly addictive.