Shaun lives with bipolar. He says in the past he’s always been cautious about who he told for fear of how they would react but since joining the Mental Health Foundation, he’s started being more open about his experience and has had an incredible response.
He says his history of bipolar, depression, a suicide attempt and his whānau having experience with mental distress drew him to apply for the role at the Mental Health Foundation a year ago.
“I was always very cautious about who I told because making judgement calls is a big part of my senior management work. I was always concerned that if I made a controversial decision, people might try to undermine them on the basis of my mental health,” he says.
“I even didn’t fully declare my bipolar when I applied for this role until I was the preferred candidate. By the final interview, I thought if anyone would understand, it would be the Mental Health Foundation.
“Yes, I have bipolar, but I am also a musician, a successful NGO leader, a partner and a great dad to two beautiful children. Bipolar doesn’t define who I am. Many people in New Zealand live well with mental illness.”
Shaun says the new role has been a moving journey and he finds it satisfying to see changes at a community level.
“But I’ve also been very touched by the individual interactions I’ve had. Last week I received an email from someone who attended a workplace wellbeing conference I spoke at. He also has bipolar and thanked me for publicly talking about it.”
Real change is about to happen
One year on from his appointment as Mental Health Foundation chief executive, Shaun has a clear idea of what needs to happen to improve things for New Zealanders with experience of mental illness.
“The government has just voted for a significant increase of funding of $224 million over four years. What New Zealand does with that money is a big question.
“We can’t just invest that money into repeating things that aren’t working. New Zealand needs to really evaluate what does work and focus our efforts there.
“The pressure is on so it’s a challenging time – but I do think real change is about to happen and the Mental Health Foundation is in a good place to lead what that change should be.”
“We want managers to normalise conversations about mental health by having them every day and to make positive mental health part of the furniture.”
Two highlights for him so far this year are Open Minds, a project that encourages managers to hold conversations with staff about their mental health, and Pink Shirt Day.
“Pink Shirt Day showed if we can instil in young people the importance of being kind and inclusive, these values will stay with them for life.”
Shaun is proud of his team’s work on projects that will help New Zealanders toward better mental health.
In the next few weeks the Mental Health Foundation will finalise its annual plan and projects for the year.
“This includes advocating for our 10 Point Agenda for Change in mental health. The team here is a bunch of passionate people who deeply care about social justice, access to services and a greater understanding of mental health.”
The Mental Health Foundation has also submitted its feedback to the Government on the Suicide Prevention Action Plan 2017–2020.
“We’ve said what we think it will take to reduce the number of deaths by suicide in New Zealand.”