It's no small feat for a young woman with dark, almost waist-length, pre-raphaelite tresses to shave all her hair off.

But for Sophie McKellar, encouraging people to be open about their mental health was so important to her after losing an uncle to suicide, she felt such measures were necessary for Mental Health Awareness Week 2014.

“My uncle had been dealing with depression for a while, and wasn’t in a good place, but never really felt like he could ask for help,” she says.

“In New Zealand there is a stigma around mental health, especially for men, so no-one knew how bad it was and none of us expected him to take such drastic action. It was pretty horrible.”

A worthy deed to raise awareness

Sophie admits that during the months after her uncle’s death, she wasn’t really dealing with the situation.

“I kept getting stressed about little things.” And I knew that wasn’t good for me.”

When she saw Mental Health Awareness Week was coming up, she thought shaving her head would be a great way to raise funds and awareness for the Mental Health Foundation, as well as a way of doing something positive for her own mental health.

“Feeling like I'm doing something about this issue on a larger scale has been huge for helping me to cope,” she explains. “Lots of people experience mental health issues – anyone can be affected at any time – that means you should not feel like you are alone and you need to know there are people who are willing and happy to help.”

Conversation leads to solidarity and stories

Sophie’s event raised $1900 for the MHF and she donated her hair to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, who make wigs for cancer patients.

She looks after her own mental health by exercising and recognising when she’s had enough and needs time out to watch a movie and enjoy her own company.

The medical student says that responses to her initiative have been phenomenal and ongoing.

“When you shave your head it takes a while to grow back, so people have continued to ask me why I did it and I tell them.

“The conversations generated with people of all ages have been great. People tell me that I’m brave to have shown such solidarity, but I tell them I think people experiencing mental illness are braver. Then they tell me their stories.”

Photo credit: Otago Daily Times