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Wise counsel inspires through painful times

New Zealand’s health services, including the mental health system, have been under scrutiny this year with criticism of funding and care coming from many parties. Rural Living spoke to one man for whom these issues have hit particularly close to home.

Michael Barnett – moving forward from some of life’s most difficult challenges. Photo Wayne Martin

Health workers, care organisations, patients and politicians have all expressed concern and frustration at ‘cracks’ in the country’s mental health system, inadequate health funding and overall inadequacies across the wider health arena.

Now, the new government has pledged to make an extra $8 billion investment in health over four years and, among its raft of objectives, it has promised to streamline cancer care in New Zealand by establishing a National Cancer Agency. It has also pledged to initiate within the first 100 days, a review of mental health and addiction services to identify gaps in services. But many are sure to ask is enough being done quickly enough especially in the area of mental health services. One person who could, perhaps, pass comment, is Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO, Michael Barnett.

Last month Mr Barnett was the subject of Over the Gate but his moving responses to questions on his personal battle with throat cancer and the tragic loss of his son to suicide prompted Rural Living to publish these separately. Mr Barnett’s poignant insights highlight the difficulties faced by those in a health crisis and but his words of encouragement and hope reveal how he coped with personal challenges.

On coping with diagnosis, followed by successful but severe treatment for throat cancer, Mr Barnett said: Attitude. I still have fallout from the side effects of cancer but I had an extremely supportive wife and understanding children.

I was also supported by a committed employer and board. Here is a piece I wrote for [former All Black] the late Jock Hobbs’ book – he was diagnosed about the same time and we communicated during my treatment.

It may seem odd, but Jock and I never discussed rugby. My relationship with him was an extension of the man who gave to others, because he could. At the end of April 2010, I was diagnosed with throat cancer. Jock received similar news at about the same time. We knew each other, but not well. That changed over the next six months and has changed the way I live my life.

My diagnosis was confirmed by phone on the last Friday afternoon in April. At the time I only knew I had cancer. I had no idea where, no idea how bad and my most demanding question was – “how long?” My next meeting was with my doctor on Monday morning. So that weekend I died a hundred deaths and shed a thousand tears.

Before long I was in a regime of radiation and chemotherapy with overwhelming family prayer and support. Nevertheless, what I needed was to communicate with someone who knew intimately the issues I was dealing with. I approached Jock. We tended to communicate by email. Sometimes I thought Jock must be the worst typist in Wellington.

He always responded but often his messages were short and concise or at other times a string of words, each with a message but always providing hope. The message that had the greatest impact on me, and which showed the measure of Jock, came near the end of my treatment. Anyone who has experienced cancer and the cruelty of the cure, will know the nights I refer to – lying awake, early morning, no hope, just despair and discomfort and a sense of futility.

I emailed Jock and asked him “when you have those nights what do you do?” He came back to me with a string of words, some of which I will share – ‘Acknowledge’; ‘Express’; ‘Support from family and friends’; ‘Best quality professional help’; ‘Pray’; ‘Be in this moment as much as possible’; ‘Meditate’; ‘Believe’.

This email from Jock created a coping platform for me throughout the rest of my treatment and recovery. The words I haven’t included, but which have had the greatest impact were,

“Change the things you can”. As parents or leaders, managers or people coping with life we have events that just occur and others which bring issues to us. Often we dwell on the past in the hope that we can change it and yet all you and I can contribute to, is solutions for the future.

We can be aware of the past, but we can’t change it; we can only influence the future. Jock’s other words became behavioural changes for me then and remain with me now: I had cancer – I needed to acknowledge that and tell those around me. Express – on those days of highs and lows I needed to share.

Family and friends certainly helped carry the load and prayer and meditation became a meaningful part of what I do. So many people knew Jock as a business leader and New Zealand rugby player. I experienced him as a mentor, a friend and a special source of humanness.

Having also tragically lost a son to suicide Rural Living asked Mr Barnett whether he had faith in the new Government being able to make headway in such areas and did he see a vision as to how more preventative action could be taken?

He responded: I don’t think it’s the Government’s sole role which will make a difference. I wrote this piece (see below), which has not been used elsewhere but it suggests that people need to change the way they think about mental health.

To achieve this will take some leadership and champions; Government will have a role. My son died a year ago – it was suicide so there were murmurings of mental health but nobody talked too much about that. It’s been a year of seeing faces and shapes in the street that look like him, hearing music that remind me of him and working with family as they dealt with grief in different ways – all things that life had not prepared me for.

I look back now and note that how he died, and why he died, has been dealt with differently by people, and sometimes not at all. One day my brother called. We talked of the bridges that link us to the people we have loved – sometimes images, sometimes music and sometimes other people. He talked about the music played at a wedding to reflect a special romantic moment for most present but that sometimes it is also the music played at a funeral for someone in the room; it represents a moment of sadness for them and extreme happiness for others.

Bridges, but with different destinations, we thought. My brother talked about mental health. He said it surprised him that when a sportsperson damages a muscle in the leg, arm or shoulder, the muscle is rested, massaged or treated to bring it back to top performance again. He noted the same thing happens for those who survive a heart attack – we don’t think twice about resting or stenting or treating that muscle in a way that returns it to full strength albeit with a handful of pills that need to be taken for the rest of our lives.

Often with the heart surgery there is a scar which becomes a badge of honour, a graphic reminder of the strength and grit it takes to be confronted by a major scare and yet deal with in a way that later delivers a quality of living and life. But, he also said, when the muscle in our head has a wiring problem or is weakened by prolonged grief or the stresses of living, we don’t talk about it and, in fact, we treat it with shame or silence. For some reason, we don’t accept that this ‘muscle’ should be treated in the same way we treat other muscles in our body.

He suggested that people need to think about this ‘muscle’ in the same way we do other major organs in our bodies and if we did we would probably treat people with what we all refer to as ‘mental illness’, differently. I’m glad my brother called.

To sum up we asked, if in dealing with his son’s passing and also his own traumatic illness did he ever consider retiring or resigning from your role as CEO of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce?

The measure of the man is reflected in this answer: “No. When I was sick with cancer I never believed I would die, I believed I would survive and, as a result, be a better person. So did my mother who prayed more than me and visited most Sundays and blessed me with Lourdes water. After all, what would I achieve from resigning?”

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