Mental health advocate Jazz Thornton wins Young New Zealander of the Year 2021

Warning: This article discusses attempted suicide and mental illness.

Sitting in the psychiatric ward as a young woman who had made multiple attempts to take her own life, Jazz Thornton had no idea she would one day be named Young New Zealander of the Year for her work helping others to battle the same demons.

The 26-year-old crusader won the prestigious award in recognition of her advocacy in the mental health space, a sector under a global spotlight as the ongoing pandemic fuels heightened uncertainty and instability worldwide. 

After years of abuse, depression, hospital stays and multiple suicide attempts, Thornton has utilised her experience to help others conquer their demons. Shortly after her final attempt at taking her own life, Thornton decided to "stop surviving and start fighting" - a phrase that became the title of her first book. She enrolled in South Seas Film and Television School to learn how to tell the stories of people like her. She has now written two books - with a third on the way - and produced multiple films to showcase the raw, harrowing reality of mental illness. Last year, the feature documentary The Girl on the Bridge premiered at the New Zealand International Film Festival, tracing two years in the life of Thornton. 

Thornton is also the co-founder of Voices of Hope, a suicide prevention organisation built alongside eating disorder activist Genevieve Mora, to support those who are struggling. She is now a globally-recognised activist and speaker, with a significant social media presence.

"When I was standing up there, I got so overwhelmed at the thought of my younger self who was sitting in that psych ward - man, she had no idea this day would come. I feel very humbled and overwhelmed," Thornton told The AM Show on Thursday morning. 

"It was years spent just wholeheartedly believing the world would be better off without me in it. I often sit back and remember those moments - remembering sitting in the ICU of a psych ward.

"I'm so incredibly grateful that I get to do what I do."

Thornton receives the award.
Thornton receives the award. Photo credit: Supplied

Thornton believes the pandemic has become a catalyst for change, with people around the world becoming more aware of the importance of mental health in times of stress, anxiety and uncertainty. She says the concept of self-isolation may have also served a wake-up call - an insight into the daily seclusion and loneliness of those battling mental illness.

A lot still needs to be done, she says, but we're moving forward.

"People who thought they had never dealt with mental [illness] before are suddenly experiencing anxiety for the first time. We don't know - at midnight we could go into another lockdown. As a country we have become so much more aware of it - this physical isolation is what people with mental illness are dealing with everyday. We've become a little bit more aware and empathetic."

She says one of the most significant things people can do for someone who is struggling is to ask them, "are you okay" - and mean it. Sending that person a daily message, letting them know they are loved and important, can be beneficial in their times of darkness. Support and encouragement can also be provided by accompanying them to a GP, or helping them find relevant services. They need to know they are not alone, she says.

"It's not going to be like this forever. There are tools you can learn that can help you," Thornton said. 

"[For example], anxiety comes in peaks and flows - and when it feels like it's up here and the world feels unbearable, you know it's coming to come back down. It's learning how to ride out this wave."

Addressing the viewers, Thornton had a message for those who are struggling to remain hopeful for a better future.  

"I promise you that with time, things will change. You're not too far gone, you're not a lost cause. There is always, always hope. Please reach out to someone - you don't have to do this by yourself, you're never alone."

Thornton is in the process of writing a third book, which follows the publication of 'Stop Surviving Start FIghting' last year and 'My Journey Starts Here: A Guided Journal to Improve Your Mental Well-being' in January. 

Where to find help and support: 

  • Shine (domestic violence) - 0508 744 633
  • Women's Refuge - 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)
  • Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737
  • What's Up - 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)
  • Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
  • Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email or online chat
  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666
  • Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Shakti Community Council - 0800 742 584