Talking about Mental Health

With Ruby Gibbs creator of the Mental health Toolbox.

When did you start the men’s group in Raglan and what motivated you to set it up?

John – I think it was March, it’s pretty recent.

Glen – The motivation for me was being in a men’s group in Auckland and just knowing the benefits of that for me, and then moving to Raglan and having no group. Shortly after, hearing that John had also moved down here, we were just having a conversation about how the community needs one and how I needed one too.

J – I moved down to Raglan and Glen was already here and he was really juiced up about starting something. So we put a message out on the Raglan Notice Board and people responded. 

What is your background? Have you been involved in these types of groups before?

J – I’m a carpenter so that pays the bills, but the satisfaction that my life force requires is more than carpentry. I’m also a funeral and wedding celebrant. I have been involved in people work for about 20 years. I’ve been doing men’s work for about 12 years. We haven’t just dreamt this up. I’ve been associated with an organisation called the Mankind Project for 12 years.

G – I started with them in 2016.

J – The Mankind Project is an international group. In those circles, we learnt a lot of tools that we have brought to this circle and the learnings for me in my life have been mind blowing, transformational, and created the person sitting here today. There’s a sort of debt of gratitude. I am happy to give back. The work that we do in our men’s circles is really deep stuff; some guys will go to therapy for years to get to the same place they do in a couple of nights in the men’s circle with us. And it’s just through being open and then being asked the right questions, in the right way and in the right environment. A lot of the stuff that we do involves asking questions. So rather than us driving the process, it’s led by whoever is seeking something.

What happens in this setting?

J – To put it really simply it’s about guys coming together and having the conversations you don’t normally have around the smoko room table; getting beyond the mundane and getting real. The nice thing is that we actually celebrate the wins and the beauty of life as well as supporting each other through the challenges. We also challenge each other to step up, to stretch ourselves, to be who we say we wanna be. There are those three aspects, care, support, and challenge. What are really important are the groundwork and the foundations so even if all of us have sat in a circle before, there’s a reminder that the things that get spoken here are confidential so we all agree to keep the space safe. Then we move into something that helps us to arrive in the space. We do a little breathing meditation or a poem will get read and some heartfelt words that help us drop into the space.

G – You can feel the energy shift.

J- Yes, it doesn’t take long, and then from there we have two working rounds where we each have an opportunity to speak and share. We’re always invited to speak from our own perspective and attach an emotion to something. There are five main emotions so we acknowledge each of those or the ones that are alive in the moment: anger, fear, shame, happiness, and sadness. So for me, 20 years ago, I didn’t know what shame was, I didn’t know what fear was. Everything was just lumped into anger. I had no idea that those other emotions were driving stuff. Anger is the easy default; it’s like your cheap ticket to hiding something. So when we speak we associate it with an emotion and then we will go deeper again. We will explore a bit more and ask where you feel it in your body. And then it’s like oh, ok, suddenly I’m home in my body. The awareness of an emotion and then the awareness of a feeling can bring guys back into their body and then they have a choice how they respond. Between stimulus and response there is a space. And in that space I can choose how I respond. And we don’t always get it right! But if we have a place where we can dissect it and understand it better and someone can hold up a mirror for us to see those bits that we can’t see ourselves, it’s like whoa, is that why I do that?

What are the benefits you have seen in your group?

J – It’s the joy. What goes part and parcel with what we do is actually celebrating the cool stuff. It’s not just the grit. If we’ve got someone who is suicidal or someone who is reconnecting with parents that they haven’t connected with in a long time, it’s really deep emotional work, and the joy is needed to complement that. It all just goes hand in hand.

G – I think that maintenance is important. When I first heard of the men’s group I thought it was a place to go when you have something to deal with but it’s totally not. Yes it’s great if you have stuff to deal with but you don’t have to. For a long time I had a story running that I had to have something big happening in my life but it’s not, it’s just to get that connection.

What do you think is the biggest barrier to Kiwi men opening up?

J – My experience is that if guys turn up, there are no barriers. The barrier is their front doorstep. If they are walking in the door, then they’re already there, they’ve committed to themselves, and they’ve committed to learning and observing something different. The barrier is giving us the opportunity to look after ourselves. I got my hair cut today and I was talking to the barber about how as men we don’t do anything for ourselves. This is as good as it gets. We just do so little for ourselves; we are not used to that self care. If we can go for a haircut and see it as nurture rather than something we have to do then we can also sit with other men and that can be nurturing. 

How can men get involved if they are keen to learn more?

J – So we meet every second Wednesday and as the summer gets on, we will probably do something on the other Wednesday as well that’s a bit more social. It’s at the Old School Arts Centre. Guys can come; they can just observe if they want, participation is not mandatory. We meet at 7pm. Every week I just put a post on the Raglan Notice Board. 

G – It’s still quite new but as it’s growing it’s amazing seeing the men opening up. 

J – What’s amazing is, guys that come for the first time, the depth they share. What they trust us with is humbling. They keep coming back. We keep on learning and we keep on growing and we are all doing it together.