Mental health and survival

Guest post

Sometimes good ideas and practices disappear over time because attitudes change, resources change and we demand everything done for us.

But in the debate on making New Zealand free of predators we could look at one method used in my youth that also made a big impact on the mental health of quite a number of our young people.  

The New Zealand Forest Service (Forestry as it was called) used to employ young people who were looking for “time out” in the bush to recover from whatever traumas and dramas affected them in those days.  Forestry would send them into a back country hut with a few months supplies, a basic first aid kit, a 303 rifle with a bayonet and bullets, and would restock the food every so often.  The hunter would be paid for the number of deer or possum tails they collected, and then the support person would go away again.  These young men slowly recovered from what ever mental health issue ailed them and after a time, some up to a year, came home and started living a normal life again.

I knew a number of young men who went through this trial by survival, and while they were probably pretty ill when they first went bush, many made a full recovery by learning to be responsible for themselves.  I presume a few died too, but I didn’t know of any who did.  They learnt resilience, how to care for themselves, and how to let off steam if the going got really tough.  Some probably let of a volley of bullets from time to time, but there was no-one there to care about that, and they did no harm.

Also quite a number went back country on major projects such as the Manapouri dam, the Haast road and the Homer tunnel. They lived in single men’s quarters – tiny huts with mini wood burning ovens, and fended for themselves amongst tough and rough men.  And most survived the ordeal!  

Others lived in tiny huts in the back blocks tending the irrigation canals that serviced the gold miners.  They could go for months not seeing anyone or indeed wanting to.  Sacks of flour and sugar and some bullets (for rabbits and deer) were delivered occasionally when a check was made that they were still alive and doing their job, for which they were paid a pittance.

Others lived in outback whares as rabbiters, paid for by the Pest Control Boards, living alone with their pack of dogs, and all the ones I met were extremely content with their lives and had no desire to live in an ordinary house in a town.

No-one mentioned mental illness.  No-one mentioned treatment.  They earned a living doing a really difficult job, and rejoined society when or if they felt ready.

I would be interested to hear from men who participated in this life, and how they saw the experience?

And would they have been better off taking methamphetamine and complaining because of the lack of mental health care?  Was our tough love a worthwhile policy.  I suspect that nowadays it would be seen as cruel and harsh treatment.


– Frances Denz

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

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