Prioritise yourself: How to stay on top of your mental health when you’re scant on time and money


  • Making time for yourself needs to be a priority and the best thing you can do for your mental health, aside from taking “mini-breaks”, is talk. It costs nothing to chat with a mate, join a men’s group, or ask your GP about accessing free counselling.

If you’re feeling low, it’s often suggested that you join the gym, see a therapist, or read a self-help book. But they all involve money and time. So, how do you tackle mental clarity when you’re lacking those things? Carly Gibbs asked the experts.

What if tackling your mental health started right now, by giving up a mere five minutes.

You start by playing your favourite song, then walk outside to your garden.

Stand still, feel the sun on your face, and listen to the birds.

Sit down on the grass and take out your cellphone. Text a friend: “Was just thinking of you”.

These steps are important because big actions won’t always solve your mental health problems, but “mini-breaks” can really make a difference, leading psychologist Dr Kirsty Ross of Massey University says.

“Doing something that brings you joy – savouring a coffee, soaking in the bath, exercising your brain with a puzzle is supporting mental health.

“Ask yourself ‘what are my needs in terms of body, mind, spirit and connection?'”

Also allow yourself to experience your emotions, rather than talk yourself out of them.

“Emotions are information that tells you about an unmet need you have,” Ross says.

There’s also good research behind expressing gratitude; altruism (doing something nice for someone else) and thinking about things broader than yourself like working in nature.

“That can give a sense of spiritual connection to the land, but also connecting to your spiritual self is positive – be it meditation, prayer, or whatever feeds your soul.”

No matter how busy you are, prioritise yourself.

“Have boundaries and be assertive to create space for your own needs, which sometimes means saying no and not feeling guilty for doing so.”

Access free counselling

It also requires you to be brave.

If you feel you need to go and see your GP, do so, even if money is a problem for you.

Dr Anna Rolleston, director of The Centre for Health, says if a person can make it to the doctor, one-on-one counselling can be free through a doctor’s referral to the Primary Health Organisation, and there are other avenues the doctor can refer a person to, and medications, that are funded by the system.

Also, check whether your workplace offers an Employee Assistance Programme for confidential and unbiased help.

If getting time off work, or juggling childcare is a problem, there are virtual or phone sessions for health appointments – a positive that has come out of Covid.

If you need help with financing, Budget Advice offers free Zoom appointments at night for those who are working.

Mentors can speak with creditors, negotiate payment plans, source interest-free or low-interest loans, and support you while you get back on your feet.

Rolleston’s general advice is to remember that life has its ups and downs and good mental health is about being okay with that, as opposed to trying to live a perfect life.

She suggests making a plan of coping mechanisms; learning mindfulness and diaphragmatic breathing techniques, and deleting or regularly limiting access to social media.

“Social media is where everyone puts up the best bits of their lives. It’s not their entire reality, but when we’re down, they make us feel more down for the things we don’t have, or where we want to be.”

Reach out to groups

Tauranga banker Rodney Phillips, 40, says if you’re able to get a referral for free counselling, it’s worth attending and he’s seen positive results of counselling in a family member who learnt self-awareness around their different triggers and developed strategies to help deal with particular feelings.

“The change is just dramatic,” he says.

“The happiness that has been felt now compared to the past is huge, [after] what seems like a relatively small engagement with someone who is qualified to deal with it.”

If you can’t talk to someone qualified, talk to a mate. If you haven’t got a close mate, join a group targeted at your age and interests, like Men’s Shed NZ, many of which provide “honest chat” and are free to attend.

“Men can be hesitant about going, but as soon as they get there and have that open and frank discussion, it can save their lives.”

Phillips is one of four Pāpāmoa pals who recently returned from a 12-day journey travelling 6500km around New Zealand visiting 24 lighthouses, speaking with people, and meeting with community organisations to raise awareness of men’s mental health issues.

The mates, who met through their kids’ daycare, have all had their own brushes with the black dog, and formed a charitable organisation called The Lighthouse Project, which refers both to lighthouses as a metaphorical “shining light” for those with depression, and to the many targeted, and sometimes under-the-radar grassroots organisations that act as the lighthouses of our communities for men in need.

Luke McFarlane, 38, along with Matt Tope, 31, Jamie Wilson, 40, and Rodney Phillips called their mission the Sweet? Nah… Find Your Lighthouse Tour in recognition of the dismissive responses men sometimes give while hiding their real emotions.

They’re halfway to achieving a goal of raising $100,000 for local community mental health organisations and charities by the end of May.

It’s okay to be selfish with your time

The men agree that in tough times you need to “take your focus away from day-to-day strains”.

“For me, if I don’t have a good day at work, coming home and doing some simple chores just so I feel like I’ve finished something for the day [can be good],” Phillips says.

“We all have those bad days, right? And instead of letting tomorrow turn into a bad day, let’s try and break out of it.

“You might have a message from your boss saying ‘come and see me on Friday’, and you sit there all week thinking the worst. You’ve got to be self-aware as to how you respond to certain types of stresses.

“Understanding that you might need to take some time to yourself, or take time with another person to talk through your frustrations and clear your head, rather than let it stew. Find that lighthouse, the person or that activity, that’s going to keep you going.”

What’s more, have realistic expectations. If you have a problem or “screw up”, know that we all do it, and someone is always going to be there to support you.

The men advocate being self-aware enough to know that you need to talk, and aware of your mates enough to know that they need to talk.

If you ask your mate if they’re okay and you receive a blithe response, keep asking.

Tauranga therapist and social worker Merril Simmons-Hansen says there’s power in finding words for your experiences of abuse, economic poverty or isolation, which in turn helps you to reimagine your life, including how social wealth has the power to lift you up beyond economic poverty.

“You think depression is just you, but as you find words, you find the ‘you’ of you is agentic, and you have apoint of view that can greater encounter the depressive episodes.

“Martin Luther King jnr said ‘our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter’.”

All of us, unless we’re really great bulls***ters, must feel that poverty of connection and hopelessness at times, particularly in the current age we live in.

Calling a free helpline (available 24/7) allows you to throw out words in the company of someone who is trained to encourage you to be more specific.

“What is the blackness you’re feeling?’ they may ask. Those call lines and online websites guide you through a series of steps that have been well thought out.”

And remember: “All of us, unless we’re really great bulls***ters, must feel that poverty of connection and hopelessness at times, particularly in the current age we live in.

“My grandmother who lived to 95 said to me ‘this. too, will not kill me’ and she’d lived through WWI, WWII, the depression, and came over here on a boat with two small children, with no money. I often think of her voice. There must be a way you can get through the next hour.”

If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call the police immediately on 111.
Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP).
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Healthline: 0800 611 116
Alcohol and Drug Helpline: 0800 787 797 or free text 8691
Your local Rural Support Trust: 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

For young people:
For the elderly:
# has a list of helplines.

Free phone support apps
Mentemia: created by Sir John Kirwan, this app includes articles, resources and mental health training tools so you can track how you’re feeling and learn some practical tips.
Melon: reach out to an online community of Kiwis who may be experiencing the same thoughts and feelings as you are. The app also provides a health journal, self-awareness tools and other useful resources, including for teens.
Staying on track: a web-based e-therapy tool with a structured step-by-step online course for people who are feeling any kind of pressure and distress from the impacts of Covid-19.
Clearhead: a personalised wellbeing plan to help reduce stress, handle anxieties, manage your emotions and relationship problems, and sleep better.

To donate to The Lighthouse Project, go to
Funds raised will go to Surfing for Farmers, Men’s Group Wairarapa, Lucky to be Alive, Tough Talk, Canterbury Men’s Centre, Taranaki Retreat and Whirlwind Stories.

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