Warning: This article deals with the topics of depression, anxiety and suicide.
25-year-old mental health awareness campaigner, film director and author Jazz Thornton has certainly squeezed a lot into her quarter century of life.
And in the last few years, the achievements have come thick and fast, with the Aucklander launching her non-profit organisation Voices of Hope, travelling around the world as an invited speaker at health conferences; directing an award-winning web series; becoming the subject of a film herself; being nominated for Young New Zealander of the Year in 2019; and authoring a new book, Stop Surviving Start Fighting… just to name a few.
We caught up with Jazz on the eve of her book launch to find out a bit about her journey, which she would be the first to admit, has not always been smooth sailing…
What’s your story? Where are you from? Tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up in Timaru and moved to Auckland when I was 16. Growing up I loved all things drama and dance and also weirdly really enjoyed doing speeches in school. I went to three primary schools and three high schools (two when I moved to Auckland!) and then spent my last year of high school studying at Excel School of Performing Arts.
You’ve been very open about your struggles with depression and anxiety – it might be hard to summarise in a few sentences, but can you talk a little bit about your own journey navigating mental illness.
I struggled with my mental health for as long as I can remember. Even as a child I couldn’t regulate my emotions and as I got older that got increasingly worse. I fought for years, and it was when I was 20 that I had a conversation that really pivoted everything for me – the conversation this whole book is based on! I learnt how to fight, and I really engaged in the battle to work through it and now I get to live a life filled with so much joy, love and security – something I hadn’t had before.
Your new book Stop Surviving Start Fighting outlines your journey through mental illness to where you are now – who do you think should be reading this book and what do you hope they will get from it?
I think this book is really for anyone who has battled mental illness, but also for anyone who is just wanting to understand it better so they can help those around them. This book is filled with practical tools, but also doesn’t shy away from the reality of mental illness and talks about it in a way that will hopefully not only open people’s eyes to it, but equip them on how they can best respond.
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In the book you talk about retraining your brain – what does this entail?
Retraining your brain is hard work! For me personally, that was having to stop at every single decision and choose to fight and not listen to my impulses. For example, previously if a close friend of mine hadn’t said “hi” to me when I saw them I would automatically jump in my head to thinking “they hate me”. And then: “See? I am unlovable.” It was learning to, in that moment, stop myself and go, “actually they were probably just busy and this doesn’t mean they don’t like you.” It was learning to retrain my responses, behaviours and beliefs.
You’ve been very vocal about campaigning for more awareness around mental illness through your Voices of Hope platform – what brought this about and what is your hope for this platform?
Voices of Hope is something that began after a friend of mine took her life. Myself and my friend Genevieve Mora had both battled mental illness ourselves and so we wanted to try and create something that we needed when we were going through that time – I guess, becoming the people we wish we had. I was studying TV directing and Gen had a background in media so we combined our love for story telling and hope together and thus came Voices of Hope! We have seen it grow rapidly over the last few years and our hope is that it continues to grow into a global hope-filled platform .
You were a finalist for the Young New Zealander of the Year in 2019, you’ve been shortlisted for NZ Local Hero of the Year this year and you were also a finalist in the Miss FQ Influence Awards in 2019 – first of all, congratulations! All very well deserved. Did you ever think these accolades would come your way and can you describe how they feed into the work you are currently doing and will continue to do?
I still find it really strange to be nominated for any of these kinds of awards. I have never once done it to be acknowledged and for me, as long as there is someone struggling I will always keep doing it. It is always a very humbling honour but more than anything I think that these awards are for any person struggling with mental illness feeling recovery is never going to happen – these awards are proof that hope is real and change is possible.
It appears New Zealand’s suicide rate is at an all-time high – why do you think our suicide rates are so high here? What would you like to see change?
This is the question I always get. To be honest, it is so hard to know the reason, and there is not just one. We have everything from toxic masculinity, to the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude – our bullying rates are sky high as are our domestic abuse rates, homelessness rates and child poverty rates. There is so much to change, but I think that first and foremost we must change the way society understands and responds to mental illness. Stop calling it attention seeking, check in on your friends and be willing to have the conversations before crisis point. We can see change, but we must first become the change.
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How is social media playing a part in this mental illness “epidemic”? What advice would you give to young people who are feeling caught up in social media pressure and comparison?
Social media is huge. But the reality is that it is not going anywhere and instead is forever evolving. So we have chosen to try stay on top of it and insert hope-filled content on every platform. What you see online is only someone’s highlight reel – not their behind-the-scenes. Don’t compare yourself, remember that the ‘Block’ button exists and take time off when you need to. Your worth is not dependent on ‘likes’.
If someone is reading this now and feeling hopeless or like there is no point, what would you tell them to do?
First, don’t give up. Hope is real and change is possible – I am proof of that. Remember that you are not alone and the best and most courageous thing you can do right now is ask for help. Don’t cancel out on life now, you have no idea what is just around the corner. Hold on.
What has been your greatest accomplishment or milestone to date?
So much has happened in the last three years it has been crazy! We have got to have coffee with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to talk mental health, I spoke at the UN General Assembly, signed a film deal, released a series about suicide (Jessica’s Tree) and have got to speak at conferences all around the world. But I think my biggest accomplishment so far has been forming a strong family and community around me that means that even if all of the ‘achievements’ go away, I will still be okay because I now have the most wonderful people around me.
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What has been the biggest challenge and what was your biggest learning from it?
There have been many, many challenges. The biggest and hardest one for me has been realising that I can’t save people. When I was directing Jessica’s Tree it was really difficult because I was faced everyday with the guilt of feeling I didn’t save her (you can see this whole process in the new film coming out soon). But understanding that we are not superheroes – we can’t save people BUT we can love them, guide them and help them to learn to fight.
How important is female empowerment to you and why?
SO important. I am the person I am today because of the women around me. The women who never gave up on me, the women who I watched on TV growing up and inspired me that I could be something – the women who guided me and spoke hope to me… We are all in this together and it has been women that enabled me to step out and live my best life.
Who do you admire most and why?
Mariska Hargitay (Olivia Benson from Law & Order SVU) is my superwoman. She has taught me how to advocate fiercely, care deeply and not settle for anything less than total change. She started acting on this TV show about sexual assault and very quickly she founded an entire organisation to help victims of sexual assault (Joyful Heart Foundation) and is now addressing the rape-kit backlog in the USA. She is the person I want to be when I grow up.
When did you last act fearlessly?
The most recent one I can think of was pitching my new TV show idea to the production team I am now working with. I am only 25 and didn’t even actually finish film school – so to stand in front of international producers and teams of people feeling so unqualified, yet so determined to tell this story was huge. I had to take a leap of faith and just do it (and it turned out really well and now we are making the show!!)
You’ve already achieved so much, what’s next for you?
So many things are coming up! The feature film about me (Girl on the Bridge) comes out later this year; I am about to start filming a new international show that I can’t talk about yet and I am starting to look more into upskilling tools I need to be able to fight for legal and government change in mental health globally. As well as expanding Voices of Hope!
Jazz Thornton’s new book Stop Surviving, Start Fighting can be purchased as an e-book or audio book now from penguin.co.nz. Look out for the paperback edition in stores near you soon!
If you or anyone you know needs help, call one of the below:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633, email firstname.lastname@example.org or online chat
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Women’s Refuge – 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.