Māori mental health: Soften Up Bro encourages men to embrace vulnerability

After facing a personal turning point in their lives, John Kingi and Heemi Kapa-Kingi say it’s time to normalise vulnerability in men, especially the youth.

Soften Up Bro is a male mental health movement, drawn off the back of the rhetoric that exists within Aotearoa which is to “harden up bro”.

Its aim is to open a safe space for Māori tāne to engage in emotional dialogue, embrace vulnerability and “the feelings that society tells men to shun”.

“We need to be able to tangi (cry) and feel mamae (hurt) without any fear of judgment and rejection.” Kapa-Kingi said.

It started with a personal relationship between Kingi and Kapa-Kingi who refer to each other as brothers.

“We understood that we had each other in a capacity where we feel comfortable talking about our feelings and things we go through in our lives.”

“From that inception came Soften Up Bro, a medium and a forum to allow other friend groups to do the same for their bros.”

According to Stats NZ, between 2019 and 2020, up to 185,000 people sought or were referred to mental health services, and more than half of them were male (51 per cent).

Of the ethnic groups reported, Māori topped the list as being the most likely to be seen by mental health and addiction services, with 6400 clients seen for every 100,000 Māori population.

Between 2008 and 2013, up to 40 per cent of people who died by suicide accessed mental health services in the year before they died.

Kapa-Kingi says the high statistics are reflective of the health services themselves and their inability to work with Māori due to a lack of cultural understanding.

He adds: “It’s indicative of the narrative that exists within Aotearoa which is the tough man, the man that doesn’t cry, that man that doesn’t show emotion,” Kapa Kingi said.

“That stigma has stopped us from seeking support either through friends or health services. It can be quite damaging for men.”

Youth (15–24 years) have higher suicide rates than other age groups, with Māori youth also having a higher suicide rate than youth from other ethnic groups.

“Young Māori men are taking their lives, due to factors that I don’t know. But one thing that we can be sure is that maybe they’re unable to talk to people, that they’re going through things that they can’t handle themselves,” Kingi told the Herald.

Tackling depression and anxiety isn’t easy, but Kingi’s example is that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.

“There’s been multiple times where I’ve had tough stuff to go through, one point in particular was when I was really battling through depression.”

“It wasn’t healthy for me; it wasn’t healthy for people involved. I didn’t know how to deal with it myself, but I was fortunate enough to have such a strong support foundation and strong support network in my friends and my whānau.”

“But that’s my privilege. Heemi and I know that’s a privilege that not many men have and I don’t take it lightly.”

Kingi says this movement will enable other men to build a better way to move forward, navigate the pain and strive for a better future.

So they’re turning to a te ao Māori approach, a holistic way of thinking which is to: “address your emotions, mihi to your sadness, your sorrows and your mamae”.

Soften Up Bro will be holding a free panel discussion on August 28. Guest speakers will include comedian Joe Daymond, and radio personalities Sela Alo and Astley Nathan.

The signs to look out for

Men are said to typically address the physical signs rather than the emotional or psychological ones.

The signs could vary from being tired all the time or having an upset stomach – but you’re less likely to consider this to be a sign of depression, anxiety or mental distress.

The following are the most common symptoms that help in recognising depression and or anxiety:

• Spending more time alone.

• Feeling unmotivated, or generally slowing down.

• Not enjoying doing things you normally would.

• Suicidal thoughts.

• Sleeping more or less than usual.

• Unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical pain (mamae).

• Changes in bowel habits or stomach problems.

• Significant changes in appetite.

• Feeling a lot of fear.

• Changes in your sex drive.

Need someone to talk to?

Youthline: 0800 376 633.
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)

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