Meet Lads Without Labels, Aiming to Improve Male Mental Health in Aotearoa: ‘No one should have to pay for good mental health’

Lads Without Labels is a student-run charity designed to improve the conversation – and dismal statistics – around male mental health in Aotearoa. We chat to founder Olivia Murphy about why she started the organisation and how the conversation is slowly changing for Kiwi men. 

What prompted you to start the work that you’re doing?

I guess the state of the world! It’s a really tough time to be a uni student, I don’t want to say that in an entitled way at all. I think we’re all very lucky to be able to be studying and be Kiwis and have so many opportunities but we’ve also seen a huge increase in isolation and people struggling with anxiety, that’s not surprising, because there’s so much uncertainty. 

I think a lot of people have been feeling alone so the rise of poor mental health within the tertiary level hasn’t been as good. My personal journey, If I’m honest with you, is that I can be a little bit stoic [but] I noticed that mental health has been a problem amongst my peers. I’ve felt anxious, I’ve felt really stressed but I hadn’t been good at looking at it. I just try now to not let it overwhelm me and when the opportunity came up to be involved with Lads without Labels, I jumped at it just because I think what we’re doing here is just so vital for the future of youth and New Zealand.

I studied down in Dunedin and I just was thinking, how far we’ve come. How did this idea come about and sort of explain to us exactly what you guys are up to? 

The foundations of “Lads without Labels” was set up by a university student at the University of Canterbury a few years ago and basically it’s a not-for-profit charity targeting mental health, particularly in males. I think it’s very clear we all have men we care about so this is an issue that affects every single one of us. The fundamental philosophy is that no one should have to pay for good mental health, so we’re just trying to get that message out there and connect with as many people as we can through our platforms.

I’m intrigued to know how the early stage of this – going into student flats, etc! Was there some resistance to this concept at the beginning?

I am so excited about our flat chats, we’ve got two boys, Tom and Max, running it. And they have just really stepped up, they’ve taken the lead and they’ve done a fantastic job setting up the initiative. The idea is that they go into a flat, they bring some really good food – so a big proper feed, better than any of the boys could cook! They go in by asking a really broad question – what does good mental health look like – and see where the conversation flows from there. We did have initial resistance at the start and in the end, I called some boys I knew from the halls and said, ‘do me a favour: It’s free food, how bad can it be?’ And they were a little hesitant, but they did it for me, and I’m really proud of them and now everyone wants to be involved. It’s just so successful.

What do you hope that all the work that you guys are doing can turn into?

Let’s say we have five boys in a flat; if they can actually sit down around a table and talk about the good and bad parts of the day and how they’re feeling, that just breaks down some big barriers and we really believe in the power of three. If one of these boys knows how to start a conversation in the flat, they will then converse with the next flat, who talks to the next flat. We feel like we can have a really big impact, and [aim to] reach as many of those 20,000 students at the University of Canterbury as we can. 

On the Lads without Labels front, which is a really big, big umbrella we’ve got so many things happening, flat chat is just one of them. What we want to do is really create measurable impact and systematic change in the state of mental health, particularly men’s mental health in New Zealand.

What’s in your toolbox when the day gets dark, and you’re just not feeling your best? 

If my day is just not going well, I reset my day. I’m really lucky with uni being flexible, if it’s just not going my way, I’ll go home, drink some water, go for a run. And it doesn’t have to be a long run. If it’s 200 metres, all good, we’ll take that! Then have a shower, have a coffee and then jump back into it. I think that just gives me the mental time to think about everything and reset and it makes me feel so much better.

What advice would you give to people out there that maybe have young people in their lives and they just can’t speak their language, can’t seem to get through. What would you say?

Knowing that someone cares is this universal language, right? It doesn’t matter if the words are a little bit wrong. It’s just the trying and the effort to understand where we’re coming from. My mom came down and visited and she said, “what’s all this about anxiety? I don’t think we had that in our day.” It just opened up this really interesting conversation where we explained how we felt, what that looked like for us and she was like, “oh, no I think I probably felt that, I just didn’t know what it was called”. Empathy always goes a long way when it comes to supporting people, whether it be to get through the day or to thrive.  

How much of where we’re at is being caused by the technology in our lives, do you think?

I think that a lot of us personally face these issues, and often we face them alone, which is a massive issue. It’s why “lads without labels” is really trying to create a space of belonging and camaraderie and connection. Those are the things that perhaps social media and being on our phones removed from our lives. I really believe that when we’re together and when we’re talking about things, face to face, that human contact is just so vital. Every hour or every minute that being on our phones takes us away from that is an issue and I think it’s probably contributing quite negatively for most of us.

How can people get behind this movement that you’ve created?

 We have an Instagram Lads without Labels and we’re also on Facebook, that is probably the easiest way to get in touch, just send us a message on there. We’ve got some very cool events coming up that we’re keen for the community to get involved with – a big marathon or kind of Relay for Life that we do, that is really good to have some people in behind. Just to thank our executive team of 18 students as well, who are so passionate and just fantastic at what they do. So if you reach out to any of them we’re all very, very keen to have outside people engaged with what we’re doing.

I feel like I’ve learned a lot but also can see the passion you have and all the great work you’re doing. What brings you gratitude?

I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to share about Lads without Labels. And I’m also really grateful that it’s something I’m involved with this year because I know it’s bringing me a lot of joy and belonging and I think that’s that’s really important.

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