What do you do when you see a problem in your community that you want to be a part of solving? Why not start a charity and commit to row across Cook Straight?! That is exactly what this passionate group of inspiring friends and former rowers have decided to do!
Leah Lassche caught up with Heather Scott and Tim Sneddon, two of the team behind ‘Through The Blue’ a new charity dedicated to starting a conversation around mental health amongst young people, and to helping provide tools to assist young people dealing with mental illness- with an epic row to kick things off!
Leah: First off, I just wanted to say on behalf of the team at Concept2, how much we admire your commitment to tackling this issue, not just in the rowing fundraiser but in setting up your charity and taking on a really difficult issue that is affecting so many people in our country. What has the reaction been since you started the charity?
Heather: I think it’s really interesting as well, just the stories that I’ve been told just from sharing it on my own personal Facebook page. People have been messaging me with their stories and how this could have helped them, people that I didn’t know were affected by mental illness, so I think it’s incredible that it’s sort of bringing people out of the woodwork and if we can help them then that’s amazing.
Tim: Then at the same time, I went through some pretty severe mental health stuff over the last couple for years so it’s really awesome to see the network of people around me sort of see me come from that place and quite quickly turn it around to this place and trying to make a real difference. That’s something that’s been really nice to hear from other people.
Leah: I’ve really enjoyed reading your bios and how open and honest they are. As you all started this together, and I imagine started to talk about your own experiences or maybe the experiences that people that you love have been through- have you identified many commonalities between those experiences? Or maybe common things that have helped you or helped others cope?
Heather: I think one thing that’s interesting to come out of it is that we were all friends’ kind of through rowing really and being involved in that, and we actually didn’t really know everybody’s stories!
Tim: (laughs) yea until the bios got written!
Heather: Exactly, until the bios got written! Yea not joking, we didn’t know what everybody’s reasonings were behind it, we kind of all knew that we had been affected by mental health individually by ourselves, or with people that we knew, but then the bios started coming through and it was a pretty big eye-opener! I remember thinking ‘wow we are actually doing something that would have helped all of us individually at some point in our lives’ and that’s why we are all really passionate about it I guess. It’s definitely one of those things that have really made us realise, that this is a really common thing within our age-group and not very many people talk about it, and I know I didn’t talk about my struggles so, if we can get people talking…
Tim: I know it’s interesting, through this whole cause we are trying to facilitate this conversation around mental health, and I have found it quite funny sometimes and also a bit concerning, that ourselves as a group of people who want to get this conversation out there, struggle to actually do it ourselves. We’re aware that it isn’t an easy thing like ‘just talk about it’ there is so much more to it than that, that’s a big step and its an amazing thing when you can talk about it, but there’s quite a bit still to do.
In my personal opinion it’s kind of getting rid of that social stigma around depression particularly, it is lessening over time, but once there is a stigma removed from that then people can start freely talking about, and I guess the way to get the stigma away is for people to really start talking about it and then hopefully a snowball effect happens from that. Anxiety is something with quite a bit less of a stigma around it, and its quite a lot easier to talk about compared to depression. That’s something iv noticed anyway- which is great because everyone can understand anxiety at some level because most people do experience in a minor through to severe way.
I was saying to my girlfriend Jo, who is one of the rowers, that my story is kind of dramatic, and that’s not the stuff that I really want to be facilitating the conversation around. I don’t want the conversation to just be about the people who have tried to commit suicide or cases where people get that far down the line, because there are so many people in between. A lot of people can’t relate to that severe end, but they can relate to the mild to moderate depression, just the feeling of not being able to get out of bed in the morning, or just not wanting to do things. The realization of finding yourself unable to do things, and that’s something that is less exciting but its actually the thing that more people can really understand and we need to talk about a bit more…
Heather: Which is where I fit in, that was me a few years ago and I think that if I can stop people feeling like that, or if you are feeling like that to encourage you to chat about it as chatting makes it a lot better. Getting people to understand, when I was like that I didn’t know how to talk to people about it, so you know its an important thing to acknowledge and to discuss with your friends and the people that support you and love you.
Read the personal stories of the team behind 'Through The Blue' on their Instagram page: throughtheblue_nz
Leah: I suppose that conversation involves both the talking and the listening, and maybe this is where some of the stigma can come into play, in that it also affects the people listening? Those in the position of hearing from loved ones that are struggling, it’ can be very scary for them to hear because this is someone that they love that isn’t happy and is struggling, and they may not know how to help them?
Tim: Yes, very much so, and I think, I know especially in my own depression, talking can be hard. As good intentions as people have when they are trying to talk to you about it, if they have no experience in it, especially when you are in the depths of it, it can be a really difficult conversation for both parties. But when you are talking to someone who has been through it, to whatever degree, and understands what those feelings are like the conversation can be much more positive.
Leah: As you say it is so common now, that it is likely there will be a lot of people that can relate in one way or another, and it’s about getting people to feel comfortable to come forward and talk about it I suppose?
Tim: Absolutely, nearly everybody I know is affected- I guess its kind of an unfair judgement because it’s from me- but everybody that I know, in some way close within their network of people will know someone reasonably close to them that are affected by it or mental health issues in general. That is something I have seen come out of this, just the amount of people that you know that have someone close to them that’s going through, or gone through, some aspect of mental illnesses. That’s something that’s made me really realize how important the conversation is because the scale of people that it actually does effect is so significant. Before, I wasn’t really sure how many people were actually affected by it but its just become so obvious from everyone around us that it is a much bigger issue than I maybe initially thought.
Leah: What do you think are some of the pressure in our society, and particularly in the younger age group, that can contribute to the sort of depression and suicide statistics that we see at the moment in NZ?
Heather: Well I think I suppose, coming at it from a girl’s perspective I think it’s the pressure to look and be a certain person. A lot of people that I see at the moment, I’ve just been down visiting family, and everybody kind of looks the same at university. It makes me concerned that I was like that when I was there to be honest, but everybody’s really… generic sounds too horrible… but there’s kind of this generic look and feel about a lot of people and it’s a result of that pressure to fit in with society. People are different, people have their own feelings, people have their own taste and things and want to look a certain way but they just feel that they can’t. It also doesn’t help, having the whole social media side of things, and that classic Instagram model and the fitness models that you see pop up and you think ‘well gosh how do I look like that”. So, there’s a whole different conversation around that kind of issue, but there is definitely that notion that everybody is wanting to be different but just not feeling like they can be I guess
Leah: Sort of a constant comparison to other people and wondering ‘am I measuring up to a certain standard?’
Heather: Yes, and just being good enough within yourself to feel like you can be yourself, and being who you are, rather than worrying or not feeling good enough.
Tim: I’m quite disconnected from social media in general, but one thing I’ve learned over the last while is how much social value younger kids take from likes on Instagram or Facebook. I was talking to someone the other week, and they told me they actually watch it and see who has liked their post, and who hasn’t liked it, and if someone hasn’t liked it then they get like angry at them in their head, and it’s like all their social value is formed on social media. I find that really quite sad, but I can see how it happens, and it is so easy for it to happen. One thing for me that kind of drove my depression a bit was I guess social conformity, just trying to fit in with everybody else and trying to do what I thought other people would want for me rather than sort of going about my own life and just doing what’s best for me.
Leah: To feel empowered to make your own decisions and be the person that you want to be?
Tim: Absolutely, as opposed to being who I thought my parents wanted me to be or who I thought my friends wanted me to be or whatever, and it kind of sounds a bit cheesy but it is something that was really one of the deep drivers for me.
Leah: Thank you for sharing that, and I suppose the whole social media side of things is a fairly new phenomenon that younger and younger kids are becoming immersed in…
Heather: It’s quite interesting the whole social media thing. I am involved in coaching rowing at a girl’s school and the amount of things that even they say to me like “I’ve got this many followers on Instagram” and ‘this many people liked my photo’ and ‘you’re going to be featured on my Instagram story’ and all this kind of stuff, to me its not really a big deal. I just go ‘cool, awesome, good on you’ but to them its an incredible effort that they feel so proud of themselves and so important because they have 1000 Instagram followers or something like that. It just holds so much weight to them, who likes your photo, and it seems crazy to me because there is a whole world out there, you don’t need to worry about Instagram!
The row across Cook Straight seems a fitting metaphor for the challenges of working through mental illness
Leah: In some ways do you think that sort of struggle with value-tying can affect anyone? Whether its social media that you tie your life value into in an unhealthy way, or its something else like perhaps an athlete that might find it hard moving on from a career in sport and loosing that identity of being an athlete and the value they had placed on that?
Tim: Absolutely, it’s the exact same issue, just different circumstances.
Leah: What do you hope to help young people understand about depression in this conversation? Perhaps for somebody that hasn’t experienced it themselves, but could very easily find themselves supporting someone else through it, or going through it themselves somewhere down the track?
Tim: I guess for one; trying to normalize it so that if it does happen to people they don’t feel like they are totally different to others. By normalizing it you realise its sort of happening to everybody, so in understanding that there is less of a stigma attached to it, it seems like less of a big deal. It is a big deal, but at the same it’s ok, and I think one of our main topics of conversation as we go through the sort of campaign leading up to the row is going to be about talking to friends and talking to professionals. Your friends are one aspect that should be one of your main support networks, particularly as you get older, on top of talking to professionals, because you really need both those aspects. We liken this whole experience of the row to that because between all of us, none of us know what we’re doing! The row is a completely new experience for us, so we talk to all these people around us who know other people, we’re talking to professionals who are helping us in every way they can, and I guess that is the same with depression- it’s getting outside and talking to the people that will be able to help you the best, and then talking to the professionals who are going to do everything that they can to help you. I think that is a pretty cool sort of similarity between the row and the kind of message we are hoping to portray.
Heather: I think for me, and what I would say to everybody, is to not be afraid of it. It’s not this big thing that is going to envelope your life if you acknowledge it at the very start. If you acknowledge that yes you are not feeling 100% and you aren’t feeling your best or how you normally would, then you can go and talk to people- talk to a friend, talk to a family, and talk to professionals because if you do that at an early stage of the depression cycle you’re more likely to be able to come out the other side and talk about your experiences rather than not being able to do that because it has taken over your life. I think it’s really important to just acknowledge your feelings and that it’s ok that you’re feeling like that, and it’s ok to get help. It’s not a bad thing to put your hand up and ask for help in these situations.
Tim: And the other thing, I pretty much, I’ve always been the depressive type. That’s just how my mind has always worked, so it wasn’t till my late teens and early twenties that I recognized that these things that I’ve been feeling this whole time were elements of depression. Because I didn’t really know, you don’t know what is happening in other peoples heads you kind of assume you are normal but at the same time I knew I was kind of different but I couldn’t put my finger on it. That’s another part of this that I’m looking forward to is kind of like discussing those symptoms a bit, because if you don’t know what you are looking out for then its no good because you just don’t know what is there.
Leah: There’s no blood test or physical test that you can point to and say ‘o that’s my problem, I’m depressed’
Heather: Definitely, there is no common test that you can clearly say ‘yep you’ve got a blood test, come back you’ve got depression’ It’s definitely not as simple as that.
Tim: So, yea, the more this has opened up as we’ve gone along the more I’ve realised just how big this conversation is and how wide and varied it kind of needs to be to be fully effective. But at the same time, every little bit that we can do is going to hopefully be really positive. For me, the one goal at the start of this whole thing was to change one person’s life for the better. Without even having money and going through with our plans and spending it on the programs we want to put in place, I know we have already made a really positive impact on a few people from some of the messages that have been sent through to us, and that’s really cool. It’s really nice to know we’ve already kind of fulfilled our main goal before its even really started.
Leah: What are your plans for the row? How many are rowing and what have you got lined up for the support crew?
Heather: So, there are four girls in the boat- Rachel, Johanna, Tina and Eleanor, and then we have Julia who is going to be on the support boat but is also a reserve so if anything goes wrong or if any of the girls need to tap out at any point then she can jump in and take over. Then there’s myself, Tim and Tufi, and we are going to be part of the support crew, basically helping with food, and any logistical things that need doing…
Tim: At this stage we are going to have two support boats and an IRB. So the IRB will be in close proximity with the girls to be around to easily come by and drop off food and things, rather than try and get a whole massive boat in alongside it which could end in disaster. Across the boats there will be the three of us, a couple of skippers, and there are a couple of other helpful people coming, one particular person whose well trusted by one of the girls who is going to be the one to make final calls so you know; if its too rough, or we need to stop, all safety related calls she will have the power. We all trust her, she knows the water and that’s really comforting for the girls. It’s going to be a long day out there!
Heather: We are hoping to drop a fishing line at some point too!
Tim: (laughs) O yea I’m going to be fishing most of the time!
Heather: It’s been an ongoing joke between us and the girls that we’ll be fishing, but we’ll actually be fishing while they are rowing so I don’t know who’s winning here, but hopefully we’ll be in charge of dinner!
Leah: Just as long as you don’t get stuck trying to reel a big one in, ‘you guys go ahead we’ll catch up’
Tim: (laughs) Yea that’s another reason we have two support boats. If one gets stuck with the fish the other one can carry on.
Leah: So how long do you expect it will take to get across?
Heather: Well its between 12-13hrs as a rough estimate- so a big day!
Tim: They are going to start from Picton rowing club very early in the morning, I’m not sure the time at the moment but I know one of the girls has got times down to a tee, but leaving Picton early, getting out to Arapawa island about 2hrs later which is at the entrance to the straight, so there will be a quick pit-stop there.
Heather: That’s one of our home bases really, if anything goes wrong we can get back to there as soon as possible.
Tim: We’ve planned the stop there to be just a little in front of tide so that it gives 10-15mins to do stuff there and then get back in the boat bang on when the tide can pull us out into the straight. All things going well we will be pulled out by the tide, and then pulled back in on Wellington side. That’s the plan all going well and I think if that doesn’t work then it is going to make it a lot harder.
Leah: What are some of the obstacles that you expect you could face and how are you preparing for them?
Heather: The tide, the weather, and the wind I guess are big ones. Boat failure is another. There is also a big area called the Karori rip which is quite notorious as a pretty dangerous patch of water, so we’ll be avoiding that, that is one of our main obstacles and we’ll be avoiding it at all costs. In case we do end up getting anywhere near it we will be doing some research on just what its like and what the body of water is about. But aside from obstacles like that, there’s fatigue…
Tim: Yea fatigue, body failure. I was actually thinking before- what happens if two girls get injured? Then you might have to jump in Heather!
Heather: Yea, well I used to row back in the day, I might if I get backed into a corner. I should probably prepare for that…actually, through the power of Instagram, there has been a girl in contact saying she used to row at RPC/u21 level and if we need another reserve she’s happy to jump in, so I might be giving her the call up so I don’t have to do it!
The Cook Straight Rowers: Rachel Gamble-Flint, Tina Mankler, Johannah Kearney, and Eleanor Morris
Leah: It doesn’t hurt to have a couple of back ups does it! One can hop in while one hopes out to patch up the blisters before hoping in again...
Heather: Well that’s another thing- hands, and just general comfort I guess
Tim: I know the girls have got like these really interesting gloves, pogies I think they call them, and they fit around the hand and the oar so it will keep their hands warm and they can still row. We’ve also got four ‘Shewees’…
Heather: (laughs) and we’ve also got some possum fur seat covers, just to help improve the seat comfort, a hard rowing seat is probably not what you want to sit on for thirteen hours!
Tim: Yea, a lot of small comforts for the girls just to make their trip a little bit more bearable I guess. But between all of the support crew we’ve got a few people there with a lot of knowledge of the straight, a lot of knowledge of boats so if anything happens, whether it be the rowing boat itself or the support boat, we will be in good hands and we won’t be stuck in the middle of nowhere without any help.
Leah: So what sort of training are the girls doing to prepare for it, is it much different to the training you would have done as ‘flatwater’ rowers?
Heather: It’s just really time on the erg, it’s just spending the time, doing it for a really long time. The other day one of the girls did a couple of hours on the erg
Tim: Yea Rachel is really putting in some time, it’s quite impressive. I think a couple for them are struggling a little with the whole length of it. They are used to that short sharp training, higher intensity stuff. It’s hard to just settle down at like 2.05 or something, and just plug away for 2 hours not pushing yourself, just keeping on going. That’s something that, although they are getting much better at it, it’s a big difference from when they were training in their competitive days to having to push yourself in a totally different way. Dealing with boredom is another part they are trying to figure out. I know they’ve been watching videos on the erg, one of the girls keeps getting, not seasick, but a bit nauseous from moving on the erg while trying to watch a video so she had to cut that one out.
Heather: Yea, otherwise listening to audiobooks, podcasts, all of those kinds of things to just in a way to numb your brain to what’s actually happening and just focus on something else.
Leah: and then I suppose the challenge of getting four people to row together for 12 or 13 hours is pretty challenging as well, to keep paying attention the whole time?
Tim: For sure, I really want some microphones on the boat so we can hear afterwards, the drama going on between them, I’m sure after a few hours there will be something.
Heather: I think we will put a GoPro or something in there, we are going to try and do some live streaming and all of that kind of stuff, so I have a feeling that within that we need to get some GoPro’s mounted on them, even if its just kind of watching them in a creepy way it would be entertaining. Then we could include some of that footage if we wanted to cut a video together afterwards as well.
Leah: That was actually one of my questions, you have sort of answered already, but how can we follow you on your journey?
Heather: So, on our social media pages, there will be a livestream in patches, we will be posting and keeping everybody updated on what’s happening. Probably updates every half hour on location and things like that, just trying to get it out there as much as we can during that time.
Leah: Can you tell us about the type of boat are you using? How is it different to a flatwater rowing boat?
Heather: it’s a swift, that is an ocean going coastal boat
Tim: I’m not sure what the difference in materials is?
Heather: It’s not a carbon fibre boat, it’s a bit sturdier and designed to take the rough water. But it does have a flat bottom and then its got a coxswain’s area which we won’t be using but that is a spot that we can put things if we need them. If we want to put a pump in and the rowers can store food and have drybags of things that might be useful at times during the row, extra clothes and things. It is designed so it can take on water but it will never sink, there are pockets of air built into it so it will never actually go under.
Tim: and the other cool thing its designed so that water that enters the boat is sort of funnelled and flushed out the back. So hopefully most of the water that does make it into the boat will flow out naturally anyway, and we won’t need to pump. So that’s really helpful.
Heather: It’s a sculling boat, everybody that has done the crossing before has sculled and we’ve got some great Concept2 sculls to row with. Sculling is just that bit more efficient, and easier to sort out where everybody sits; you don’t have to worry about people getting pulled around and having that affect the steering. It’s easier to drop people out if they need to, it might be that someone will come out, have a bite to eat and a drink or something, and then hop back in and we kind of rotate through if we need to.
Leah: How can people get involved in supporting you guys?
Heather: The main thing we are directing people to is our Facebook page, ‘Through The Blue NZ’ on Facebook. Via that there are links to our givealittle page and to our Instagram page. On Instagram we are ‘ThroughTheBlue_NZ’ so you can find us there too. We really encourage anyone- don’t be afraid to send us a message or anything like that. We love hearing about everybody’s stories and that’s kind of why we are doing it so we want to get people involved.
How to get involved:
Donate Via Givealittle: www.givealittle.co.nz/org/through-the-blue-charitable-trust
Join the conversation on Facebook: Through the Blue NZ
Follow the preparation and the row on Instagram: Throughtheblue_NZ
Visit the website: https://throughtheblue.co.nz