© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2024

Our Place: manhood and mental health

Hannah Powell
Leo v2
Leo Noordanus is on the executive for UC mental health society Lads Without Labels.  Hannah Powell

Welcome to Our Place, a series exploring identity in Aotearoa New Zealand. This article explores masculinity, representing three different and individual experiences of being a man in Aotearoa.

This article mentions suicide and depression. If you or someone you know needs help, call 0800 LIFELINE (24/7 Helpline) or 0508 TAUTAKO (Suicide Crisis). 

In 1987, historian Jock Philip’s ‘A Man’s Country?’ was published in Aotearoa New Zealand. Otago University lecturer Chris Brickell tells me Jock’s book was the first scholarly look at Pākeha masculinity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  

Jock Philips suggested that masculinity in New Zealand was based around the image of the farmer, the soldier, and the family man later on. Chris says the historian explored the idea that men in New Zealand were fairly unemotional, and that masculinity was connected closely to land. Aotearoa, for some time, was seen as a “passionless” place. 

Almost twenty five years on, ideals around masculinity have changed. A vast number of men work in offices, live in urban areas, and move differently, going to the gym or playing sport instead of herding stock or fighting at war.   

Notably, the stigma attached to talking about emotions has undergone a significant shift. But some traditional ideas of what makes a man remain.  

In this article, a student, yo-pro, academic, and former All Black discuss masculinity, role models, mental health, and the evolution of the male construct.

Kii Small, a young professional living in Wellington, moved from Bermuda to Kaitaia when he was 12 years old. Now 25, he describes his transition from boy to man.  

“There was just that point…your mum gave you the keys to the house, you could finally come home late. I used to tell my mum, ‘yeah, I’m going fishing with the boys,’ and she knew I’d bring fish back,” Kii says. “For me, that’s what being a man was.” 



Spending the last eight years in Wellington, he thinks many urban places have a privilege to question the binary and social constructs that men live around.  

“I know a lot of young men who are dealing with that same question in urban senses,” he says. “They get to decide when they become a man. When we were growing up rurally, you were a man.” 

Kii believes urban and rural men can often have a different list of priorities Once you’re in the urban centres, he says there’s a large privilege in understanding diversity and breaking down social constructs. But rurally, he explains, you don’t have time. 

Kii says they deal with different issues, and since he’s been living in the city he’s noticed the disconnection between definitions of manhood. He says rurally, being a man is picking a trade, learning to drive, and providing food for the whānau. In the city, he’s noticed education is prioritised, sport is important, as well as a white collar career.  

But like a pantry, he says everyone can cook with the ingredients they buy and prioritise. Men just serve from a different place.  

Expanding on urban vs. rural, Chris says with groups such as Groundswell, there is an older masculinity clashing with what are perceived to be urban values, particularly around environmental attitudes.  

Attitudes towards mental health, however, are more on the same page…it’s just an issue of getting the support. 

Although a recent study found the number of men diagnosed with a mental illness is just over half that of women, 75% of suicides in New Zealand are amongst males. 

Chris says although the conversation around mental health is common, it is not universal. And while strong attempts are being made in running mental health campaigns in rural areas, such as with the Rural Support Trust, some farmers are not as connected in.   

In other areas such as professional sport, talk around mental health has not always been so forward. 

Dave Hewett, a former rugby player, has experienced that first-hand.  

A father, business owner, and former All Black living in Ōtautahi Christchurch, Dave grew up on a farm in the 70s, living a typical farming life: feeding chickens before school, rounding up the sheep when needed, and answering the party line if he was expecting a call. Rugby was something he played all his life.  

Dave began his professional career in 1998 when he was 27. Playing for Canterbury, The Crusaders, and then the All Blacks, he was considered ‘an older athlete’ by the time he started.  

“I was old, all the other guys were 19, hadn’t done university, didn’t have a family, maybe had a girlfriend…I was at the other end of the spectrum, I had a different perspective.” 

Although he played many good games, retirement was tough. After almost a decade in professional sport, he felt like his identity had been removed.  

“I was Dave Hewett the rugby player, but when I didn’t have rugby anymore, who was I?” 

A husband and father to a young family, and with a marketing degree, he was grateful he had the support and something to fall back on when he was “dropped” at 36.   

But, he says, it was still “bloody hard.” 

He acknowledges for some, their experiences were even harder. 

Dan Vickerman, an Australian rugby player, took his own life in 2017 after facing difficulties in retirement from professional sport. Like Dave, he had spent almost a decade playing on the field, but Dan was forced to retire due to a persistent injury. In the wake of his death, conversations were raised around mental health support in the transition to retirement. 

Dave, who had played with Dan on the field, said his passing resonated with him.  

“I never got to the stage that he obviously got to, but I understood where he was coming from. The identity thing is really hard to overcome.” 

What doesn’t help, he says, is that when you retire the whole world knows. He adds, it’s not often you retire twice in your life. 

Dave says after rugby he accessed support, but he didn’t know if his team mates did because they didn’t talk about it. He admits some of his close friends did talk about ‘stuff’, but they weren’t encouraged to do so like men are now.  

In 2017, New Zealand rugby launched mental health and wellbeing programme HeadFirst. Four years later, coaches and management from 18 of Aotearoa’s leading rugby teams completed their Mental Health 101 training, in the hope to create an environment where staff and players feel comfortable to speak up. 

Coaching for Canterbury, Crusaders, and Southland NPC, Dave tried to step into that supportive role himself. But during his time as coach between 2007 and 2019, he believed there was still a stigma attached to opening up. He says the problem is that a lot of players don’t access support until it’s too late, and although you can lead them to water, you can’t make them drink. 

“They’ve got to want to do it,” he says.  

In and outside of rugby, he thinks communication within his generation is getting better.  


PHOTO ABOVE: Dave Hewett

But the younger generation are evidently more open to it. Kii, the founder of online journalling platform SaySo Project, says 30% of those who journal are men, and although that doesn’t reflect how many men are willing to talk about their feelings, it represents how many men are willing to find a safe space to write about them.  

He believes for men, the ultimate goal is to become a mentor or role model – something he is trying out for himself.  

Dave says within rugby, he sees young men step into role modelling prematurely.  

He thinks at their age, they are still struggling with their own identity.  

“No disrespect to the individual, but [at 19] they’re not role models, they’re sporting icons.”  

He says by early thirties, many have then stepped into those mentor roles. It just takes time, experience, and an exploration into their own masculinity: a journey into manhood. 

Something Leo Noordanus, a post-grad student at the University of Canterbury, is currently navigating. 

Raised in Ōtautahi, Leo has lived an urban life – a different path compared to Kii and Dave’s rural upbringing. Transitioning through primary, secondary, and now tertiary in Christchurch, he says he has arrived at his twenties with a strong group of male friends. And on the executive for University of Canterbury club Lads Without Labels, he is encouraging other men to find their own sense of brotherhood. 

Lads Without Labels started in 2020 after founder Sam McLean wanted to set up a club that promoted the importance of men’s mental health. Joining the team in 2021, Leo noticed amongst students, like in sport, there was a still a stigma around men opening up.  

He hopes the efforts of Lads Without Labels will equip men with the skills to feel most masculine and most confident in themselves as a man. Lads Without Labels aims to provide a sense of mentorship and community – something Leo has experienced himself growing up.  

Leo talks of two significant role models he has had in his life – his father, and a young man at his church called Brad. He says these two people have heavily influenced him on what it is to be a man.  

“Dad established values for me, but visually Brad was an example of what masculinity could look like.” 

He says his father taught him to be a leader, be confident, and always keep his cool. Brad, a teenager who went to his church, influenced him on image. 

Brad, who he is still very close with, is ten years older than him. When Leo was five, he was fifteen.  

“He was in high school – he had the hair, he was quite built as well. We had similar features, blue eyes, blonde hair. I saw a bit of myself in him,” he says. “I thought, this is what a cool guy looks like – he’s good looking, he’s got good hair, he was always bringing girls to church. I think as a young kid I was like, ‘huh, that’s a bit of masculinity there.”  

Now twenty-one, his idea of masculinity has evolved. With a backbone of protector, provider – much like Kii – he also believes that manhood in your twenties is about finding yourself in your career, relationships, and choices. 

And one of those choices is to open up and talk about mental health.  

Admitting there are good and bad things about New Zealand’s ‘lad culture’ amongst young men, he likes to think talking about your emotions is becoming more of a normalised thing.  

As the efforts of Lads Without Labels continue into its fourth year, Otago University lecturer Chris  believes mental health amongst men is an ongoing conversation that has not been finished. And with younger generations challenging the binary, he says we as a society are realizing the boundaries can be moved a bit.  

While Dave encourages men to open up, he shares concerns that Gen Z lack an element of resilience he had as a kid, aware with a statement like that he may sound “old school”. Kii, on the other hand, is hopeful young New Zealanders are finding space online to talk. And Leo believes that following social media, there is so much choice in terms of influence. He only hopes that because of it young men become stronger in deciphering who they are. 

So while there may be mentors, role models, influences and media, when it comes to masculinity, Chris says it was never a stable [construct]. He explains Raewyn Connell, an Australian sociologist, defined it to be a field of forces: flexible, fluid, and forever shifting.  

The identity of the New Zealand man is what Chris describes as the $64,000 question. The image is always changing.