The student-led charity helping men open up about mental health

A charity "for students by students" is working to tackle an often-taboo topic and help men open about mental health. 

Lads Without Labels is a University of Canterbury club providing a community on campus where students can come together to connect and be vulnerable. It aims to equip young men with skills they can take with them after graduating and supplies access to free professional counselling services for those in need.  

Lads Without Labels is one of the inspiring charities chosen to take part in Z Energy's (Z) Good in the Hood campaign for 2023. Good in the Hood supports local community groups by giving them a share of $1 million to do good in their neighbourhood.  

"It's inspiring to see student-led initiatives like Lads Without Labels committed to supporting the important kōrero around mental health in Aotearoa. We’re really pleased to make a contribution to support their mahi through Good in the Hood”, says Abbie Bull, Head of Sustainability and Community at Z. 

"It's all centred around destigmatising and building conversations around mental health," says Tom Vincent, the charity's president. "Especially at the university level and especially for males."

Lads Without Labels runs several initiatives and events around the university aimed at fostering a feeling of brotherhood among students and getting them to open up. 

One of those initiatives is Flat Chats, which taps into student flat culture in a bid to generate discussion around mental health. A typical Flat Chats session will see a couple of members from Lads Without Labels drop by an all-guy flat, bringing with them a free roast meal. They will then kickstart an "honest conversation about mental health and about opening up to one another".

"It's not a group therapy session," says Vincent. "It's more of starting the conversation within the flat to create change so once we leave conversations keep going and the guys can get better at having those conversations and talking to one another." 

Vincent, who is currently in his second year of a civil engineering degree, says it's no secret that Kiwi men need to up their game when it comes to communicating and sharing their feelings. "Blokes especially are really, really bad at talking and really bad at opening up," he says. 

"Typically everyone wants to be staunch; everyone wants to act like a tough bloke and like nothing fazes them." 
By getting men to start talking openly at university, Vincent hopes students can learn some important skills they can carry with them through life.

"We think it's really important to set that base and get guys talking to other guys now," he says. 

"Because at the moment you're flatting with your mates, they're just around the corner and you see them every day, but 10, 15 years in the future when some serious things go wrong in your life, if you've never reached out to some of your mates it's going to be so much harder."

The charity also puts a strong focus on promoting exercise, based on the idea that what's good for the body is also good for the mind. 

"There's so much evidence around exercise and mental health being intrinsically linked," says Vincent. "And sometimes when you're going through it tough and you've got no idea what the

problem is, the one thing you can do is take charge of your physical health - that's always the first step on the way." 

Vincent says it's common for many university students who were actively involved in team sports at high school to let their physical fitness slide at university, where exercise can often take a back seat to drinking with mates. The charity's Ugly Boys Running Club, a social running and exercise club, is an attempt to get people moving again, giving participants the opportunity to "run along with a bunch of your mates and chat away while you're doing that".

"It's a really good opportunity to build a brotherhood and a sense of camaraderie." 

The club also holds an annual Run72 event, where University of Canterbury students and members of the Christchurch community pound the pavement for 72 hours in a bid to raise money and awareness around mental health. Funds raised through the event go to the charity's counselling fund, which allows it to provide free professional counselling services for people in need.

Vincent says it's inspiring to see how far the charity has come since it launched in 2020. 

"To see where this club started and how it's grown and the recognition that we're getting from companies like Z and everyone else is pretty crazy. The support that we're getting from the community has been so amazing and it's helping us do what we want to do and to keep providing the support that we are so desperate to provide."

This year, Z will surpass the $10 million milestone in donations to community groups and charities throughout Aotearoa New Zealand since 2011, largely enabled through its Good in the Hood programme.    

Article created in partnership with Z Energy.