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TW: This article contains discussion of suicide and drug use.
After eight years I still have questions.
Twelve and thirteen-year olds aren’t equipped to deal with suicide, and I remember sitting in the chapel feeling helpless; dumbly wondering at the magnitude of it all as your mother, father, and brother gave testament to your humanity at the tabernacle. I was grieving, sure, but I had no idea how to. Surrounded by schoolmates, we all sat trying to process what had happened.
But we didn’t say anything about it.
See I come from a culture where showing any sign of compassion is a weakness, and a town where the trope of certain-things-are-better-left-unsaid gets taken to its self-destructive end-point. I went to an all-boys school. I’m from New Plymouth, Taranaki, specifically. Not that it matters. The tragedy I’m going to recount could be played out in any small provincial town, in any corner of New Zealand, that you wouldn’t know existed unless you’d been there yourself — and even then you can’t figure out why it exists. I’m not going to give any names, primarily out of respect for the families but also because the people I’ll describe could be from anywhere, in any province. Just think for a moment and you’ll find someone.
Following his death, a few students received counselling. I was not one of them. Not that it mattered; the school’s extension of pastoral care was little more than a lecture and admonishment about the dangers of drugs. “What they were putting in their bodies” were the words used by the deputy principal. Not that I blame him — any hint of kindness would make him appear lesser to his peers. Soft. Not a man. Not worthy to represent the school, the town.
But what were we representing? What do we continue to represent? Regions that, long since cash-strapped by years of heady neoliberal politics drawing all industry to the main centres, are left scrabbling for tourist income or temperamental industry like dairy farming or oil drilling. Sheep, beef, logging — goods taken from our land — get sent to large centres with none of the income returning here.
As a young person without any qualifications, a position many of us find ourselves in, making ends meet is nearly impossible. A friend of mine was fortunate enough to secure a 24-hours a week contract, stevedoring at the port. Within a month, he had only worked three days. Another friend of mine struggled to get a job due to previous convictions and drug abuse. Whilst out with his friends one unemployed afternoon, he shot at a respected member of the community with a paintball gun. It might have made sense at the time. I don’t know. But as a result, he couldn’t work some days because he had to attend court-ordered rehabilitation. Because of that he was struggling to pay the rent.
We are left desperately singing the praises of depressed towns to the discord of an out of tune piano. Don’t complain or you’ll make a scene. Heaven forbid we draw attention to how much trouble we’re in.
We may not have much, but we have our stoicism. Our “she’ll be right” attitude.
She won’t be right. She hung herself in a garage.
My friend, who died aged 14, was Māori. The Māori youth suicide rate is 2.8 times that of non-Māori youth. Linda Tuhiwai Smith said: “Imperialism frames the indigenous experience. It is part of our story, our version of modernity.” It is not latent, lying beneath the contemporary experience; instead, “imperialism still hurts, still destroys, and is reforming itself constantly.”
In Taranaki, there are plaques to the “brave men who fought against the savages in the Māori trouble” of the 1860s. There are red coat uniforms adorned around the walls of a local church. For Māori, the struggle for recognition as tangata whenua that began in 1860 has never ended.
Following the Land Wars of 1860, vast tracts of land were confiscated from Te Atiawa in an area that became known as the Waitara Block. In 2014, the land was offered back to Te Atiawa at a price of $23 million from their $70 million Treaty settlement. A recent select committee hearing on the 2014 Waitara Lands Bill revealed the layers of institutional exploitation in the Council’s behavior and in the bill itself. Under the portrait of Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitāke, representatives of Te Atiawa gave testament to how the proposed bill would not work for many leaseholders of the land, would not fulfil the desire of the rightful hapu, Otaraua and Manukorihi, for justice, and that the real winner is the Taranaki Regional Council, who can profit from the freeholding of property that needn’t be reinvested into Waitara. The Council has been collecting millions on leases on the 770 properties in Waitara for 157 years, and now suggests that the iwi can buy back stolen land for a fifth of the original settlement.
Taranaki has a regional and city council that has repeatedly made dubious decisions concerning Māori affairs and has not adequately communicated with hapu, iwi, and the wider community. However in September 2014 the Council voted to establish a Māori ward seat, an initiative of the then Mayor, Andrew Judd, to give Māori a representative outside of the pre-existing district allocation. But a subsequent citizens’ initiated referendum voted by 83% to remove the proposal. Judd declined to run for reelection in 2016 following the rejection of the Māori ward seat and a string of Council decisions which cemented the effectiveness of institutional racism. Mr Judd was spat at in a supermarket in front of his children and abused via social media.
Our castigation of our Mayor made the news. Our history of alienation of local Māori did not. One can only hint at barefaced racism in couched tones for so long before the great white elephant in the room has to be addressed. When Andrew Judd attempted to do this, he was effectively shunned from New Plymouth society.
Without discussing it a whole lot, we are doing our best to make Māori feel unwelcome. The natural thing to do when things aren’t going so well seems to be to turn to your neighbour, use them as a yardstick, and reassure yourself that you are more than them. “Sure, we can’t get jobs. But neither can the Māoris.” Things haven’t been going well in the provinces for a long time. Post-colonisation, they’ve been a struggle for Māori.
Fast forward to 2017. Within the last three years I’ve been to the funerals of six of my peers. Drugs and alcohol stood out as a prevalent theme. My friend who died aged 14 was always the one wrecked at parties. The acute ability of alcohol to ruin the lives of the young was always down-played in my youth. Sure you can take a couple beers to a party, just don’t get too messy. But of course it was never just a couple, for any of us. My tolerance for alcohol was higher at 16 than it is now. I was a latecomer though, teased because I never brought a full box to a party while my mates brought 12, 18, 24-boxes, and attempted to drink it all.
In an attempt to outdo each other, to prove we are the hardest out of everyone, we all started very young. We got off the couch way, way, too early. Before his death, one young man had told his mates that he’d been seeing monsters. I believe him. The combination of unsteady employment, mental health issues, alcohol, and methamphetamine will do that to you. But what else were they supposed to do? Can’t show any weakness.
Weed isn’t that much of a step from alcohol. Anyone who scoffs at the concept of gateway drugs is lying to themselves. In most pills in New Zealand there’s bound to be amphetamines of some sort — you’re kidding yourself if you believe otherwise. Then what’s to stop you cooking? Sure, sounds a bit scary with the “meth” added to the front, but when you’re at a party and a guy runs straight through the gib-stop after smoking out of a lightbulb, it does the same thing.
We aren’t chasing a high to celebrate, let me make that clear. Rather, it is an ill-fated attempt at self-medication, to escape the dizzying lows. You had two days of work this week? Your friends are self-harming and you know it’s bad but you daren’t tell anyone ’cause secretly you’re feeling that way yourself? You had to move back home ’cause you can’t pay the rent? You listened to an MP tell your hapu “the law is an ass,” as if some attempt to commiserate and condescendingly explain why stolen land cannot be returned could assuage years of grief?
It is as if the weight of over a century’s worth of oppression and exclusion is finally collapsing the collective shoulders of so many of our young people, Māori and Pākehā alike. To them, the only rational solution is to take their own lives. A part of me doesn’t blame them. Why ask for help if you already know the answer? Why bother someone, why cause a fuss, when you can just say, “she’ll be right” and ignore such obvious cries for help instead?
2017 opened with another suicide — a boy who had advocated for opportunities for youth within his town. A friend called it selfish and, while that’s harsh, it’s his opinion. He was once close to the boy — he’s been affected by the death, by each death. The effects of suicide are never isolated, especially amongst large hapu.
As for me, I will never understand why you did it, because I have no understanding of your circumstances — they were your own, and were kept close to your heart. It’s because of this that I have to respect the decision — you judged it was the right thing to do, in the circumstances.
We live in small towns that hardly anyone knows exist and still less people can explain their existence. We drive pedal to the metal, living out our uncertain lives ’til the car breaks down, or we run out of gas, or we lose control of our minds and take our own lives, whichever comes first. We concentrate power in the hands of an unrepresentative few, knowing we may never see the day that what was stolen would be returned. We bury our mokopuna and wake knowing they aren’t coming back. We hold our tongues, fearing no one will listen to us and if they did, chastise us as being weak. We live and die in cacophonic silence in, small, obscure corners of Aotearoa.
If you’ve been experiencing depressive thoughts on a regular basis, or are finding yourself experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, or just want to talk to someone about your own mental health, then please reach out and get in touch with a professional. If it’s an emergency please call 111.
Mauri Ora: Kelburn 04 463 5308, Pipitea 04 463 7474, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Youthline: 0800 376 633, free text 234, or email email@example.com
Capital & Coast DHB Te Haika / Mental Health Crisis Team: 04 494 9169 or 0800 745 477 (24 hours).
Suicide Crisis Helpline (for those in distress, or know someone who is): 0508 828 865
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 / www.depression.org.nz