“Hoping for a better life and looking ahead made me realise there is more to life than sacrifice.” At her home near the town of Ngongotaha, on the western shores of Lake Rotorua, 16-year-old Arianna Cudby sings her waiata about following the right path in life and the struggles many teenagers face.
“When I lost my cousin to suicide in 2011, that’s when I decided, enough is enough.”
Arianna, of Ngāti Porou and Te Whānau-a-Apanui descent, started a campaign to help break the silence on suicide, to encourage her peers to talk about it openly in order to prevent future deaths.
The campaign, Haka 4 Life, started off as a 90 day challenge using haka to raise money for the Key to Life charitable trust, which works with youth to help prevent suicide.
The campaign is now over, but the Facebook page following remains strong and the seed it planted has now grown into a passion for Arianna to help stop others from taking their own lives and to stop the mamae it causes for affected whānau. “I just hope that suicide rates are able to go down and by using this campaign, to direct our youth into opening up instead of keeping their problems to themselves and hurting.”
From her waiata, there is a sense of mamae or pain that she has overcome herself. Before her cousin died, Arianna was facing her own struggles and it was seeing the impact of suicide on those around her that made her realised there needed to be change.
Suicide among Māori rangatahi is more than double than that of non-Māori. Rotorua's community has seen the devastating affects it has on whanau and other rangatahi and Arianna isn’t alone in wanting to turn around.
Preventing suicide has become a whānau cause. Arianna’s grandfather, Michael Naera, started working with suicide prevention group Kia Piki Te Ora when it started in his rohe after his hapū, Ngāti Pikiao, suffered six deaths. He has also lost two of his uncles.
The cause became even more of a reality, when the whanau lost his niece Tegan a few years ago. She was the clown of the whānau and brought them together. When she died it left a huge gap. “It rips your heart apart, it rips the whānau apart and shatters our dreams ... it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
The statistics paint a grim picture for suicide in New Zealand, but for Māori that picture is worse. A Ministry of Health report in 2011 showed the numbers of young Māori who took their own lives was 2.4 times higher than that of non-Māori.
At the time of the report the suicide rate for Māori youth was 36.4 per 100,000 of the population, for non-Māori it was 15.1. Rates of non-Māori youth have been trending downwards over time, but for Māori it’s not.
In the report, Bay of Plenty was one of the three areas that had statistically significantly higher suicide rates than the total rate in Aotearoa between 2007 and 2011, with 15 deaths per 100,000.
Naera says kaupapa Māori prevention services are relatively recent initiatives. He says whakamomori became a problem in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“There are a lot of reasons, the movement of Māori in the 1960s and ‘70s from rural areas to urban areas, which created huge fractions in whānau, so of course when you have fraction and disconnection you are going to have a peak in rates.“
“…what we need to do is get back to that place where hapū are supporting hapū and iwi supporting iwi, that’s where we need get to back to.“
Mark Kahu is a contract landscaper by day and volunteer youth worker by night, where he was born and bred in Ngongotaha.
His best friend took his own life when he was 14, and the impact it had on him has stayed with him ever since. He said he wouldn’t talk for weeks, but he now knows the importance of talking about it.
“Growing up as a young fulla, I got into a lot of mischief and trouble, I had close friends who killed themselves, and others that went to jail or joined gangs. I decided to get into youth work because I didn’t want my sons and their friends going down the same path that me and my friends went down.”
He dedicates his spare time to run programmes with those aged between 12 and 19. He says suicide is real for these kids.
When a local well-known boy took his life about a year ago, it had a ripple effect in his village. But he says they had to find the right way to channel that pain.
“One situation was we went to the tangi there were hundreds and hundreds of people, some rangatahi saw that as - wow look at all the attention this guys got because of what he’s done.”
He says it’s just the way some of them think, and that programmes are needed at those times so that rangatahi are asked the right questions in the right settings – otherwise the results could be fatal.
Israel Hawkins from Ngāti Kahungunu ki Heretaunga is one man who is working to ask those questions. He works for Wera Charitable Trust, which does a lot of work with youth and former prisoners.
After a suicide in his community last year, Israel wanted to make sure that the same thing didn’t happen again. He led the boy’s tangi and about a week after he was buried the trust held wānanga with friends and whānau to help them through the grieving process, and to understand what happened.
“What is scary is we find here in Rotorua, if one person passes away, within two weeks, two others commit suicide, so we know we had to stop that three by three happening. We wanted to get into the ears of the young people before it got to the other two.”
“There was no contract, there was no service, it was a need we saw and we knew we needed to get in there, we knew that the impact would be quite great and if someone didn’t do something.”
He found the friends could talk about it more after the tangi, because emotions were running high. But he says although talking about it is was easy, talking about it in a safe environment is very important. He says if it’s not dealt with properly, it could create a bigger problem, whether it be depression or turning to drugs and alcohol.
Israel speaks passionately about a loss of cultural identity among rangatahi which he says, in his view, contributes to the high suicide rates.
He says tikanga seems to be null in void in youth culture, specifically with a lot of those referred to him.
“What I find a lot, which can really depress me, is the type of influence they have in their own whānau of what it is to be Māori such as gangs, and their lack of understanding of what culture can provide, which can be a good protection around depression.”
“I need to make them understand how great they are as Māori.”
Paora Te Hurihanganui is the CEO of Te Papa Tākaro o Te Arawa, which uses physical activity, health, nutrition and cultural pursuits to find solutions and empower Te Arawa and the local community.
Paora, who is of Ngāti Rangiwewehi descent, describes suicide as a disease that does not come from a traditionally Māori way of thinking. “As we move into becoming more contemporary and more Westernised, I think these things will increase”
“Te Papa Tākaro’s approach to suicide is to come from the angle which celebrates the strength of rangatahi and how that plays out in a modern context and using traditional notions to transform and build the platform within their identity.”
He says that means he uses traditional philosophies and ideas from tūpuna that give guidance on how they behave.
Te Papa Tākaro works with a number of rangatahi who have come from troubled backgrounds. He says its approach can work in different ways.
“We might be on the water on a waka that may not be the connector, that may just be the door opening, it might be the training that happened after that or the korero on the side, or the aspirational ideals we put up such as whakataukī.
“… there are a whole lot of connectors that we are putting out there that may connect with rangatahi, that may spark transitional positive change.”
Paora says it may not be a huge shift in some cases, but it’s a catalyst in helping them find their own pathway. He finds usually once they start, they yearn for more.
Reconnecting with those traditional ideals is a way to re-engage them with their identity and who they are. An example is his research into moving back to tūpuna kai - or the way’s the ancestors ate.
“If we move back to the more natural state of kai, kai that connects us to our environment and connects us to a whole body of mātauranga or knowledge, we just don’t connect with the physical gains you can get from a good clean diet, we gain a whole lot more that comes from that.”
“That’s a key aspect in our rangatahi that we are not developing, as a people we are leaving that out, if we have a look at us as Māori functioning, as a wairua, hinengaro, tinana, ngakau, whānau - the taha wairua is a very big part of that - yet we aren’t consciously developing our rangatahi in that space, they have to fill that void with something and that is normally something that isn’t conducive with positive good behaviours.”
“We are using a whole lot of mechanisms that are reinforcing them as a contemporary rangatahi and not as the embodiment of ancestral potential - and if we move back and look at it in a different way and we supply our rangatahi with notions of potential that come from a space that they whakapapa from, I think we will get a more positive result for the future.”
Despite the considerable mahi by some communities the numbers are only coming down incrementally.
However, Naera, from Kia Piki Te Ora, along with his whānau and other community roopu, will continue to educate and raise awareness in the fight to prevent whakamomori among rangatahi Māori, a cause which seems to be gaining more and more traction on the ground level.
He strongly believes it needs to be a community wide approach, he says koroua and kuia also need to get on board the kaupapa. “I am quite clear on the answers, all it is is cultural connection, cultural maintenance, cultural revival.”
“... once we get to the point for Māoridom we won’t have kids sitting in isolation, we won’t have kids wanting to talk to their parents and getting disregarded, instead we will have whānau connecting and talking with rangatahi, at the moment we are disconnected from having intimate korero with our rangatahi.”
“The numbers will come down if whānau, iwi and hapū are educated, at the moment they are fearful of the word suicide, they are fearful of when a rangatahi approaches them and says ‘I want to take my life.”
If you need to have a korero with someone about how you are feeling, these services are available if you need some tautoko/support, if it’s an emergency call 111.
Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
Healthline - 0800 611 116
Samaritans - 0800 726 666 (for callers from the Lower North Island, Christchurch and West Coast) or 0800 211 211 / (04) 473 9739 (for callers from all other regions)
Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Youthline - 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Nā te haehae o te ngākau, he waruwaru noa iho, nā te oranga o te tangata hai puta mai a tōnā wā.
The hurt eventually becomes scars as we learn to live our life again.
Photos by Will Bailey.
This content was produced with financial support from NZ On Air.