The country - and world - into which today’s teenagers emerge is charged with anxiety, anger and desperation.
New Zealand has a stubbornly high rate of youth suicide. The odds of completing NCEA or tertiary study vary widely, depending on the colour of your skin. Home ownership is more often the punchline of a joke than part of a realistic lifeplan. And then there is climate change.
How, as a young leader in the country’s largest city, do you reckon with it all? Stuff asked 84 head students from across Auckland’s schools to speak up. They described problems: The pressure to post a perfect bikini shot on Instagram; the fear of missing the cut for medical school; the burden of carrying the hopes of a whole family. They also spoke of hope: I will help create the technology that captures carbon emissions; we are going to talk openly about depression and anxiety; I’m going to show my family we can achieve anything.
We discovered a group of young leaders preparing to tackle the things that worry, intimidate and scare them. They are acutely aware of the prejudice, inertia and ignorance that threatens their futures. It makes some of them angry.
But theirs is a modern insurgency. They’re more likely to organise online than in the streets. They will win arguments with reason, rather than rage. Theirs is a Polite Rebellion.
Behind all of the Instagram likes and Snapchat streaks is often a much more complicated teenager. Young rugby player Jed Melvin says the pressure of social media needs the outlet of trusted friends, family or school counsellors.
Jed Melvin squints into the sun, Orewa College rugby shirt stripped from his back and proudly held up to display the number 8. His teammates stand shoulder to shoulder, staking their claim to the muddy field.
The Facebook cover photo version of Jed is confident, athletic, a team player, at least 147 likes worth of popular. But the 17-year-old isn’t immune to the negative flipside of social media.
It “really puts the pressure on you,” he says. There’s the desire to appear “more than you are” online - and on top of that, the pressure to replicate that in real life.
I know that for me, following all the celebrities and everything, seeing what they do, you want to try to live up to that.
He counts himself as one of the lucky ones - he hasn’t experienced mental health issues, but he’s seen the toll it takes on his mates. “Guys are probably worse at [talking about] it,” he says. “There's that kind of macho stereotypes that guys if you’re struggling with something you have to do it on your own.
“When you’re with all your mates and stuff it’s not really the go-to thing to say: ‘Look, I’m struggling with anxiety’.” This is the Jed you don’t see in the cover photo: thoughtful, concerned, caring. That’s not to say a photo of him in his rugby strip is disingenuous - it’s not.
Footy is a massive part of his life. He’s been selected for the North Harbour Rugby Academy and has his sights set on making the North Harbour U19 team, then the Blues U20 and New Zealand U20 teams.
He trains four days a week, leading up to the “big game” on Saturdays. It’s the physical side he loves: “Body on body, just getting a hit in.”
But rugby isn’t the whole story. What you can’t tell from his Facebook photos is his passion for maths, physics and problem solving - the drive behind his plan to study engineering at University of Auckland next year.
The engineering degree is part of a bigger plan to help communities in Bolivia. When he was in Year 6, he spent a year living there at an orphanage where his parents were working. The experience left a lasting impression.
He’s keen to give back closer to home, too. He’s hoping to become a youth worker next year at Orewa College - where he’s currently head boy - so he can help students struggling with mental health problems.
Mental health is the biggest issue facing his generation, he reckons. The constant scrutiny of life online isn’t the only pressure - the workload at school is full-on, he says, and getting into university is tough.
You really feel that and it could break you.
Jed is one of 84 student leaders from across Auckland who Stuff surveyed as part of Polite Rebellion, a project examining the lives, goals and fears of a generation of school leavers.
He’s not alone in his concerns. Eighty-six per cent of the survey participants said they were “very concerned” about mental health and youth suicide, while the remaining 14 per cent were “somewhat concerned”.
For these teenagers on the brink of leaving school, dealing with mental health issues and self harm - and the sometimes devastating effects - is deeply personal.
Nearly everyone 18-year-old Claudia Munro knows has experienced, or is living with mental health issues. Part of the problem lies in Kiwis’ reluctance to recognise how bad things are, says the deputy head girl of Mahurangi College.
“We constantly are met with ‘she'll be right’ from our elders - it is as if the expression of emotion is seen as weak,” she says.
Jenny Wilson, head girl of Aorere College in Papatoetoe, agrees. Many of her friends have experienced severe mental health issues like depression, she says, but haven’t spoken up about how they are feeling.
“Nobody really steps up to talk about issues and personally, I think that this is a huge issue due to the number of suicides that have occurred in the past two years,” Wilson says.
New Zealand’s youth suicide rate - 15.6 per 100,000 people aged 15 to 19, according to Unicef - is the worst in the developed world.
Last year, 300 Aucklanders aged 13 to 17 presented to the Waitemata and Auckland DHB emergency departments due to self harm or attempted suicide and 3094 were referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Cahms), an increase of 10 per cent on 2016.
Esther Patu, who is in her final weeks at Alfriston College, has known teens in her community who have taken their own lives. “Most are from those we least expect,” she says.
If people don’t feel they can speak up, it’s vital everyone can recognise signs of depression and anxiety, she says - and this starts in the classroom.
It’s really important schools, especially high schools, start paying more attention to mental health.
New Zealand could be getting somewhere in that respect.
A submission to the Government’s mental health inquiry seeking funding for Pause, Breathe, Smile (PBS) and ATAWHAI - two evidence-based mental skills training programmes - to be available in all schools was backed by about 14,000 signatures. The programmes focus on mindfulness and resilience, and are aimed at improving mental health and wellbeing.
The Government has invested $17m over four years to put nurses in all decile 4 secondary schools - previously, only deciles 1 to 3 schools received this funding.
“This means an extra 24,000 students in 41 secondary schools will get access to medical advice, including mental health advice, at their school,” Health Minister David Clark says.
Auckland campaigner Lucy McSweeney is critical of the current “tokenistic” approach to mental health in schools. The 22-year-old took a petition to Parliament last year calling for compulsory mental health education.
Including mental health in the curriculum wouldn’t make the problem disappear, she says, but it would mean people are better equipped to seek help or support others.
“Education allows us to move beyond nominal acceptance to understanding - that’s when we can start breaking down stigma,” she says.
So what’s missing from the conversation?
“Hope! I want to see more hope,” she says.
Most people who struggle with mental health problems get better. [But] the media conversation would have us thinking everyone who suffers from depression dies by suicide.
Jed reckons his generation is better at talking about mental health than those who’ve come before. Having a solid support network is vital - especially for guys, he says.
“You really need to have that really close group of friends. If you’ve got that, that’s really cool that you can share your mind with them.”
If Jed isn’t playing rugby with his mates, they’re playing volleyball or basketball, surfing, planning summer camping trips.
His family is tight-knit. The middle of three siblings, Jed grew up in the small rural settlement of Wainui on the Hibiscus Coast, North Auckland.
Teenagers need people around to talk to, he says.
“If it’s not your family then I think school counsellors and youth workers are really good things to explore.”
“For me, my parents are a great support crew.”
Pakuranga College head student Elizabeth Arrowsmith says when it comes to supporting teenagers with the pressures of life online, parents have to go beyond just telling them to switch off.
Being constantly connected to your friends is “everything” at secondary school, she says. “A moment away from the screen can lead to disconnect amongst peers and the rest of the world.”
It’s impossible for adults to understand the role technology plays in teenagers’ lives, Jennifer Berry says.
“When they grew up they never had the ability to contact someone straight away, as well as to have people see what you’re doing straight away, track your location,” the Hobsonville Point Secondary School head student says.
You know, you’re overseas on holiday with your family and they’re waiting for you to post a picture of yourself in your bikini so they can judge it. It’s so instant. It’s hard to hide and there’s no escape from it.
Ezekiel “Zeek” Raui is a youth ambassador for Mike King’s charity Key to Life. He says everyone should take responsibility for countering the culture of comparison on social media.
Teenagers need to be “empowered” to know the world isn’t as perfect as it looks on their Instagram feeds.
“It’s about normalising those imperfections. Saying to our young people that when you make a mistake that’s fine, what matters is that you learn from it, and that it’s not embarrassing and it’s not uncommon,” he says.
It’s important to recognise the weight social media carries in young people’s lives and use that to support them, Raui says. Put a motivational video in front of a teenager scrolling through Instagram and they’re likely to watch it, he says.
Being able to text - as well as call - the ‘Need to Talk? 1737’ service is a “game-changer” for a generation who never talk on the phone, McSweeney says.
I’ve personally texted it [Need to Talk?] from under the covers after I felt I couldn't pick up the phone.
E-therapies also offer hope for young Kiwis. Cognitive behaviour therapy can be offered through games such as Sparx, which helps young people with depression learn to cope with negative thoughts and feelings.
Professor Sally Merry from the University of Auckland led the development of the game, and says it’s been shown to be just as effective as face-to-face therapy. However, e-therapy should be seen as an “extra tool”, she says, not a replacement for a robust mental health system.
Jazz Thornton, the 23-year-old co-founder of the charity Voices of Hope, says the conversation needs to be “solution-based”. Young people need to be able to see that there’s a way of getting through mental health problems.
Thornton compares the response to New Zealand’s mental health crisis to how young activists in America are leading the charge against gun violence. While older people cling to a “hush hush” attitude, scared of talking about suicide for fear of copycat attempts, it’s the younger generation that are “raising up”, she says.
“[They’re] going: ‘Nah we need to do something about this, we’ve got to talk about it, we will talk about it’.
“Talking about it doesn’t make anyone suicidal. It just reveals what’s already there.”
Reporting: Brittany Keogh and Josephine Franks
Visuals: Lawrence Smith
Animation and design: Kathryn George
Data: Andy Fyers
Development: John Harford
Editors: John Hartevelt and Blair Ensor