Kia ora, ko Zach ahau! I’m new to the Retreat Staff Team and will occasionally be writing blogs on various topics! Here’s one on a particularly timely topic…

When I was a teen – not too long ago, that is – I had pretty bad anxiety. In our current climate, this statement is so common, so run of the mill, that it’s hardly likely to excite any sort of intrigue in anyone. I almost cringe whenever I see the anxiety diagnosis listed in my medical record: accompanying depression – the classic package deal – it marks me as a stereotype of my age, generation, and social climate. Anxiety has reached a point of cultural ubiquity; perhaps the best reflection of this is how it has found its way into the realms of dark, then mainstream, humour. Many of us joke about being perpetually anxious – in a world where cases of this mental illness are exploding exponentially, there seem to be few alternative coping methods. 

At age 15, after receiving my anxiety diagnosis, I was presented with some shiny new medication: beta-blockers, which had the power to stop anxiety attacks. The catch? They needed to be taken 30 minutes before said attacks. Anyone with any sort of experience with anxiety will know that this isn’t always the most realistic ideal. Still, they did help – if I knew in advance that I’d need them.

That’s the thing! Medication can work wonders. But there are some things that it can’t treat. Most problematically, in my view, it can do very little about situational circumstances. In my case, and in many others, this is quite a problem. 

When I got my hands on those beta-blockers, I was going through an extremely anxious period of my life. Part way through year 11, I suddenly found myself unable to attend maths classes – that is, I’d start having a panic attack if I tried. Panic attacks in maths class might sound like a laughably relatable prospect in the abstract, but in reality, it totally sucked. Still, maths wasn’t a favoured subject of mine, and it could be dropped. The real problem came when I started getting panic attacks on the way to school, and quickly found myself unable to attend any class whatsoever. Each morning was approached with cautious hope – maybe today I’ll return to normal – before, in the process of getting ready, my proverbial alarm bells started to ring, and I was once again cast far away from any possibility of normalcy. Another failed day.

I had hated high school for almost as long as I’d been there. In popular culture, it’s this place where you make this incredible, close-knit group of friends, with whom you engage in all of the teen ‘rites of passage’. So when I reached my third year and was still sitting alone, I found myself reeking of failure. Among other things, high school became a place of isolation, exclusion, and shame. It was a reminder of being an outsider – someone ‘not quite right’, whose life experiences and ways of being seemingly didn’t line up with expectations. Again, in popular culture, being an ‘outsider’ made you cool and alternative – in reality, it was just depressing, lonely, and decidedly uncool. Each day of attendance was heavy with dread, so I suppose it’s no wonder that my brain eventually became thoroughly sick of this seemingly endless ordeal. However, while my mind could be pacified with medication, those beta-blockers could never find me friends; they could never solve quite why I didn’t ‘fit in right’. They couldn’t remove the necessity of schooling from my life. All they could do was shield me against the worst effects of my day-to-day circumstances.

And so it goes for countless causes of anxiety. Medications can’t alleviate the terror of poverty, unstable work, housing insecurity, impending climate change, political polarisation, or any other such symptom of our damaged culture. As such, they can rarely be a complete solution. But then, what could be? There is no quick fix to these sorts of problems. There’s therapy, of course – this is actually designed to help people examine root causes – but it still has its limitations. In particular, the cost is prohibitive, and availability critically low. 

I guess this is why I’m quite so excited at the prospect of Manga Hapahāpai / The Confidence Centre. While open to anyone dealing with anxiety, its primary focus is rangatahi – young people, that is – given our disproportionately high rates of anxiety. I think, if something like this had been available to me as a teen – a free service, without a miles-long waitlist, its raison d’etre a sign that I was neither alone nor a failure for my experiences – things would have been significantly different. 

Despite all of the jokes surrounding it, no one wants to be able to identify with the phenomenon of ‘anxiety’. It is debilitating. It disrupts and disturbs your life, robbing you of your autonomy and freedom. You become dominated by fear. What’s more, I don’t think it’s uncommon for anxiety to make you feel like a total failure. In the case of being a teen, not only do you see yourself as the maligned stereotype – the young person hiding on their phone with their headphones on, escaping to the online world because reality is too much, and ultimately isolating themselves further in doing so – but you also see all of the expectations of this period of your life go dancing by. Enraptured by stories of what older generations got up to, envious of the excitement and relationship drama playing out on various Netflix teen shows, being told repeatedly of the value of youth and that you could well be living out the ‘best years of your life’ – free as you are from adult responsibility – you come to the conclusion that your life is perhaps over, before it’s even really started. What’s the point, then? When I went through this, I struggled to find such a point – and there wasn’t really anything outside of the exclusive world of therapy to help me.

The Confidence Centre, then, is a response to aching need. It takes one look at the suffering of so many of us rangatahi, and extends compassion, warmth, love, and hope. There’s no whiff of derision, air of superiority, comments about the corruption or foolishness of the youth. No spiteful blame for our being guinea pigs, thrust into a digital, online world almost from birth – before there was any cultural inkling of the potential fallout this could cause. There’s just a genuine willingness to improve lives. Unlike medication, (which, again, does have its place), the Confidence Centre will work to help people with their immediate situation, alleviating some of those circumstantial hardships that drive experiences of anxiety.

Sure, the Confidence Centre may not be able to solve the structural causes of poverty, or reverse climate change, but it does offer free, non-judgemental support. It is a reminder that you are not alone, that there are people who care about your situation, and that there are solutions – your problems need not be medically suppressed forever. Moreover, it will provide connection and community – something so many of us are so desperately lacking these days. Isolation is a nasty driver of anxiety that works as a vicious cycle – no connection increases social anxiety, which decreases your ability to connect. It was certainly a key problem for me, one I’m still learning to resolve. Even if you can make your way into the world of therapy, it lacks, like so many aspects of modern life, a similar community vibe. We need connections more than ever. I see the Confidence Centre as a place that fully understands this.

Against the bleak backdrop of widespread suffering in both my age group, and the current generation of teenagers – those hardships I experienced being repeated again and again – the Confidence Centre fills me with hope. It’s going to make a huge difference. 

I think that’s pretty amazing.