Jonas Koukl and his 11-month-old son, Tomas, at home in Carterton. PHOTO/HAYLEY GASTMEIER

Hayley Gastmeier

Creating a space in which Wairarapa men can feel strong, empowered, and supported by their peers is what Jonas Koukl aspires to do.

Last year, the 34-year-old Carterton man launched the Wairarapa Men’s Group, which will now meet on a regular basis.

Jonas said many men preferred to keep their feelings to themselves and deal with their personal struggles alone, this often taking a toll on their mental health.

“I feel there is a lot of pressure – not just on men but on everyone. If someone asks how I am and I say, ‘not good’, people are scared.

“People want to hear you say, ‘I’m really good’ – there’s pressure to be that cool person who is always shining.”

Originally from Czech Republic, Jonas said a men’s group offered a platform where men of all ages and cultures could connect and give and receive support, while learning from other people’s stories about life’s ups and downs.

As a teenager, Jonas said he was constantly “looking for identity” and changing to fit in with those around him.

“I was seeking value from the outside.”

But Jonas said through joining men’s groups, his life had changed for the better and he wanted to share this with others.

The sobering suicide rate of the region was another catalyst driving his desire to get men to open up.

Media reports earlier this year said the number of suicides in New Zealand had reached “its highest-ever level”, with 685 people dying in the year to June 30.

A statement from Wairarapa District Health Board in August said that around 75 per cent of people who took their lives were male and there needed to be “better services to support men”.

Jonas said men opened up in a unique way when it was in a men-only environment, where surprisingly all sense of rivalry generally disappeared.

And just one person sharing of their struggles could inspire and influence countless others.

“We don’t need fancy leaders or any celebrities to tell us how to be a man.

“It’s about getting together and keeping the pure intention of cultivating our strength, and then knowing how to work with that power.”

A trained primary school teacher, Jonas lives in Carterton with his wife, writer Catherine Cooper, and their 11-month-old son, Tomas.

Over the past few years he has been bringing people together in Wairarapa with music therapy, and for a decade prior he held men-only gatherings, mainly in wilderness and bush settings in Europe.

Jonas said these gatherings created a very strong feeling of brotherhood and belonging, which in turn had positive impacts on relationships and other areas of life.

“But for me it was mainly about self-value.”

Jonas said his teenage self would have been surprised to know the path he would end up on.

It all began with a vision that “just appeared in the middle of the forest” when he was about 19.

“Maybe I made it all up, but I heard ‘one of your missions is to help empower men’.

“I found it weird because I was never interested in anything like that.

“I thought ‘I don’t know how to do that because I don’t feel like a strong man’.

“I thought ‘how will I teach others about something I don’t know properly’?”

The same day Jonas was invited by his father to a men’s only gathering.

“I would have usually said ‘no thanks’ but because of that vision I said ‘okay’.”

Jonas said it was an enlightening experience that has stayed with him ever since.

“I saw about 50 men sitting in the historical building in a circle and just the presence of those guys sitting there in silence was quite powerful … I was the youngest one there and I had self-doubt, I was quite self-conscious, but all the days we spent together I felt like I was witnessing miracles.”

Jonas said he saw men breaking down personal barriers, growing, and gaining self-confidence.

“I saw men who looked super tough – people I probably wouldn’t communicate with if I met them on the street – and I saw them crying and I saw them starting to open up and talk about their stories and being open to feedback.

“I learnt that no matter what they’re carrying – troubles with money, relationships, families – whatever they were carrying seemed it could be resolved through the lineage, looking back towards the ancestors.”

Jonas said it was about feeling accepted, strong, and valued.

“It’s not about a bunch of guys going to drink beers, it’s about this is what I’m experiencing and I’m asking for feedback, and this is what I learnt and I feel it’s worth sharing with you, and hearing of the experiences of others.”

Jonas said all meetings were non-profit and based on koha, which would cover venue hire and website administration.

They are led by volunteers – more co-created than facilitated – and open to men aged 14 and older.

From December 5, the Wairarapa Men’s Group will meet on the first Thursday of every month at the Carterton Courthouse, 7- 9pm.

The next meeting of the Wairarapa Men’s Group is at the same venue on Thursday, November 14, 7- 9pm.

Spend a night in the hills, camping around the fire next to the river. This gathering in from 3.30pm Saturday, November 23, until Sunday noon. You will need to carry your sleeping bag, food, drum, and other personal belongings for the 15-minute walk from the carpark to the bush. Happening in any weather conditions. Email jonas@connecting-arts.com to register or for more details.

  • Website www.mensgroup-wairarapa.nz is in the making. This page will work as an information portal about this group and related support groups and activities in Wairarapa.