Nearly 17 percent of adult Kiwis—around 650,000 souls—have been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives, while one in six have been diagnosed with some form of mental disorder. Within any given month, around one in 10 adults will suffer psychological distress, with Māori and Pacific Islanders most likely to be worst hit. While women are more likely to experience common mental health issues, men are around twice as likely to die by suicide.
The Covid-19 pandemic has compounded Aotearoa’s mental health issues, with more than half of families reporting depression and one in five of those suffering seeking professional help. Most—around one in four—have sought guidance from a professional service or helpline, around one in six have turned to tech or online services, and one in seven to self-help books. Another source of solace for many is Newstalk ZB’s pioneering late-Sunday-night radio show, The Nutters Club, where listeners are encouraged to call to discuss all manner of taboo and mental health matters. It’s hosted by Hamish Coleman-Ross and resident psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald, and with regular special guests.
Verve sits down with Hamish to find out more…
DUTY OF CARE
“Once upon a time, we were a lone voice, talking about mental health more than any other public broadcaster,” says Hamish over coffee overlooking Waitematā Harbour, “but just last Thursday, on World Suicide Prevention Day, you had David Seymour and Chlöe Swarbrick on Breakfast TV together—two people who could be barely be more from the opposite ends of the spectrum—talking about the suicide prevention plan put together by a bipartisan group in parliament.”
Do you think politicians are doing enough overall to address the nation’s mental health issues?
“I don’t think anybody in the government gets up and thinks ‘I’ll do the least I can,’ they are genuinely trying to find a way forward, but it’s fraught with peril. People become personally invested in it in a big way, and sometimes that means that whatever the outcome, it doesn’t feel like enough is being done, or that it’s happening fast enough.”
While it’s “easy to blame the Beehive”, Hamish believes more should be done to empower communities, as “communities know how to best solve community problems”.
“Instead of pointing the finger at others, point the finger in the mirror and ask yourself what you can do,” he continues. “It can be as simple as dropping a note through your neighbour’s letterbox. A lot of it is on us, on society. Workplaces, too, are a great example, with toxic environments being called out around the country. We need to give more consideration to the environments that we create. I’m not saying we should be walking around with fake smiles on our faces, but we should be honest with people, and generally just not be a dick.”
There was nothing else in the world quite like The Nutters Club when it debuted in 2009. A brainchild of Mike King, the radio programme set out to encourage everyone ‘to take ownership of our own mental health’. It spawned a book and TV show, and now draws more than 50,000 listeners (that’s the number one spot for the time-slot with 40 percent of all listeners nationwide), and more than half-a-million Facebook views each week. Hamish has been there almost since the start, initially taking care of the social media before working his way through the ranks to be handed the hosting hotseat full-time by King in 2017.
“Mike is an amazing guy, and he does so much to elevate people around him and give them opportunities,” reveals Hamish. “He was still doing his stand-up way back then and sometimes couldn’t make it back, so I’d fill in, and it gradually ramped up from there. When I first took over, someone—I won’t say who—said to me to that I should enjoy the rest of the year because I wouldn’t be back the next. I asked why that was and they said, ‘Because you’re not Mike King.’ It was kind of interesting that that got said, but I trusted in the process of what we were doing with the show and didn’t really think too much about it.”
Three years later, Hamish remains so committed to the show that even when out of Auckland, he’ll take a flight back for just one night to be in the studio.
“One of the key things to the success of the show is consistency,” he says. “Feedback we often hear is, ‘I know you guys are there on Sunday.’”
That’s quite a cross to bear?
“I don’t find it that hard. It’s more important to others than we are prepared to embrace in a really conscious way—maybe then it could feel like a cross. I just accept that I must be in Auckland on a Sunday night, and as long as I am required to do that, I am happy to.”
Though the show might appear a simple one, as with the subject matters it covers, beneath the surface “there is much complexity” that requires the entire team to navigate.
“Sometimes I’ll say to Boris [Sokratov, producer] that we need to get that person’s number so that we can refer them to somebody or speak to Kyle more. We are serious about our duty of care. It’s not a voyeuristic show, we ensure support and procedures are in place, especially when dealing with topics as serious as suicide.”
The audience, too, are essential, often calling in with contacts, advice, or knowledge, which “all comes back to community again”. Hamish hammers home the point that there is much support available in Aotearoa, but laments “a lot of people just don’t know where to find it”.
Hamish studied politics in his hometown of Dunedin, where he dreamt of a career in the performing arts.
“I did one semester and realised I didn’t really enjoy hanging out with actors who all seemed to be in constant competition for the most attention in the room,” he says. “So, I generated towards television and radio. I had done a radio show while at high school, then worked at the local TV station while doing my degree and essentially did an apprenticeship where I picked up most of my media skills. It was a wonderful experience.”
He flirted with comedy for a while, creating a short satirical film about Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden hiding in plain sight at Otago University, the joke being that no-one paid them any attention as there were international students. Hamish played the role of a “serious journalist”, but it was a later role as a real serious journalist covering a manufactured campus rape story that led to him getting the bug for news and current affairs.
“My producer asked to speak to me about the interview and I thought he was going to tell me that I’d messed it up, but he said, ‘That was really powerful.’”
For a long time, that period of my life was a dark secret that I didn’t talk about, I was encouraged not to tell people. Suicide was considered this terrible thing, like a disease, and you didn’t want people to know that you had been affected by it. But upon reflection, my own horrific experiences helped me to be able to be a good interviewer, to be able to be emotionally responsive to somebody who is telling me things that are deeply personal to them.”
Later in his career, Hamish would report on momentous New Zealand modern history in real time as a video journalist for Fairfax during the Pike River tragedy and the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch quakes. He’s also worked as a producer for NBR, TVNZ and TV3.
“I have very few formal qualifications for any of my work in life and I don’t really say that with any great deal of pride. It’s just the way it happened. I’ve always generated towards things that I feel passionate about and often my work has had some kind of social undercurrent. I generally, genuinely like to see the best in everybody.”
Such empathy is essential as the host of a show where guests and listeners bare their souls and darkest moments and fears. I ask if he’s aware of the wider audience during those one-on-ones.
“I always concentrate on the moment. When I’m talking to the person, like we’re talking now, my attention is fully with them. I obviously look for the moments where we can bring Kyle in to be give us clinical definitions around what it is that we’re talking about, and to give legitimacy to the feelings. We do that for a very good reason—it’s so that people understand that whatever it is they’re thinking or feeling actually has a background, has a study. That in of itself makes people feel a whole lot better.”
Natural compassion aside, Hamish can also draw on terrible personal tragedy having witnessed his father’s death through suicide, when he was just four years old.
“For a long time, that period of my life was a dark secret that I didn’t talk about,” he recalls. “I was encouraged not to tell people. Suicide was considered this terrible thing, like a disease, and you didn’t want people to know that you had been affected by it. But upon reflection, my own horrific experiences helped me to be able to be a good interviewer, to be able to be emotionally responsive to somebody who is telling me things that are deeply personal to them.”
Do you believe we are generally more open to discussing emotional trauma now?
“As a society, we are in a very different place to where we were even 10 years ago, and that’s wonderful. We must encourage as many people as possible to develop the language of talking about mental health in order to communicate with each other about how it’s affecting us and how we can treat it.”
The numerous handwritten, text and Facebook messages add to what is clearly an already sky-high level of job satisfaction for Hamish, who’s also especially tickled about once being recognised in a supermarket: “Not bad for radio, they’d clearly done their research!”
He is “deeply humbled” by his role and admits to never having imagined being on air for 11 years, let alone pulling in the numbers that they do.
“People deserve help and guidance when they’re distressed or depressed,” he says. “And if a late-night radio show has become the best, or most helpful, option for some, then that’s great, but there still needs to be more. Many people just want to be validated, to know they’re good enough and that their effort was appreciated, even if they didn’t win the race.”
Though he happily makes those dashes back to Auckland on a Sunday evening, or gladly rises from a late afternoon slumber to farewell his partner and kids, Hamish does admit that the emotionally draining nature of the show means he needs to be “handled with kid gloves the following day”.
A lifelong solo sailor, being out on the waves is among his most preferred methods of blowing the cobwebs away.
“I really enjoy being out on the water, it’s really just a good way to clear the mind and just commune with nature,” he says. “There are a lot of misconceptions about yachties, but here’s something not a lot people know—we’re all, by the very definition, environmentalists at heart.”
If you, or someone you know, has mental health issues, the Ministry of Health (health.govt.nz) has a comprehensive list of services that can help. If you need to speak to someone immediately, call Lifeline for free on 0800 543 354.
The Nutters Club airs on Newstalk ZB every Sunday at 11pm.