NZ youth need better support asap

Some of the youth from Whangārei at Matataatua Marae

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Trigger warning: frank discussion of suicide and sexual abuse

“Different kids get different opportunities”, 17-year-old Cinta Hoek-Ama told me last year. I’d been in touch with her for six months as part of a feature, published this February, on New Zealand’s high Māori youth suicide rates.

There’s a palatable version of the troubled teen. They are usually white, middle class, do alright in NCEA and have depression or anxiety — not less-talked about states like psychosis or mania. They represent the future and it’s just so tragic that they are suffering, say parents, teachers, outsiders.

This isn’t to diminish what they’re going through (as a former white, middle-class teen who went through CAMHS, hi!) but to highlight how the teenager starting fights in school fields, skipping class or bullying their peers is often pushed aside in this narrative. They shouldn’t be.

Last year I got to know students from low-income communities who came from abusive homes or had absent parents. High schools urgently need better systems for dealing with such trauma. Institutionalised racism and a stretched education system let our most vulnerable youth suffer alone. I appreciate it’s not the job of teachers to act as mental health professionals but young people living in dangerous homes often have nowhere else to turn.

Cinta, a former charter school student living with her grandma in Whangārei, took issue with the teenagers representing her in suicide prevention. Sometimes they offered meaningless words, she said, they didn’t know what it felt like — to lose or a friend or to attempt.

“That’s just the way it is — they’re looking for certain people to fit the part.”


For the story, published in Mana magazine and The Spinoff, I talked to people in the Māori suicide prevention area in Christchurch, Rotorua, Wellington, Whangārei and Auckland. I’m extremely grateful to have been welcomed into these communities, particularly the hospitality offered by Kylie Jane and Ngāi Tahu and the teenagers from Whangārei.

Racism was constant. A school band I talked to in Christchurch were still discussing a recent apology by their principal on behalf of white people. The boys had been introduced as “coconuts” by the host of a local music competition — their parents were offended, they said, but they didn’t understand the slur. A school receptionist was rude to a Samoan mental health advocate who dismissed her glares and tone as “typical of Christchurch to a tall person that isn’t white”. Then there was the principal that didn’t bother to pronounce te reo Māori properly and spoke of “mari” students.

Sexual assault came up a lot. For the sake of protecting victims — both alive and dead — I wasn’t able to bring this up much in the finished article. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of sexual abuse, I believe, is a high factor in our suicide rates and shouldn’t be ignored.

Zion singing with mental health patients in Christchurch

As suicide prevention worker Zion Tauamiti said:

“saying ‘stop suicide!’ demonises this other thing. It becomes foreign. Suicide appears to be a dark, overshadowing cloud but actually — with those contributing factors — it is the uncle that keeps walking into the room at three a.m…. no one is going to talk about it so you just grow up going ‘I fucking hate myself’.”

I first met Zion (and his boss Lovey and co-worker Rudolph) at the World Indigenous Suicide Conference in Rotorua last year in June. I’d just received the NIB Health scholarship and thought it would be a good place to start. Staying at Mataatua Marae, we shared the space with Whangārei youth.

The teenagers — who had fundraised to come to Rotorua and were mostly Ngātiwai — were loud, lively and friendly. They wore blue shirts and washed dishes in the wharekai.

The trip was organised by Whaea Lily George as part of a research programme into effective suicide prevention for rangatahi after Whangārei’s spate of suicides in 2012.

Lily recently published her final report which can be read here and features poetry from the teens as below:

Since the article was published, Cinta has been appointed a member of the Whangārei Youth Advisory Trust and “B” finished NCEA level two. I was able to catch up with both of them at a recent conference held by Keri Lawson- Te Aho in Wellington as they were awarded a small scholarship to attend.

right: Cinta makes the newspaper and left: me, “B” and Cinta catch up a month after the article is published

“B” told me kids at her school walked up to her and said they saw her in “that article” but “they’d never had interest in me before”. Cinta has remained confident and dedicated to helping rangatahi and spoke with passion in a private conversation a circle of youth had that was orchestrated by Mike King.

When looking at the rangatahi who killed themselves it was clear that so many would have benefited from someone who could let them know they weren’t trapped in their current situations. If they had the cellphone of someone like Zion or the regular wānanga with professor Lily George that “B” and Cinta had. So many hurt young people are living in pain and, as Yuliana Haki Kare Drummond told me “they just want to get out”.

Having an adult taking time to check in isn’t a panacea but when you’re a teeanger who feels a prisoner in your own home, it’s hard to think with a future-brain. And when Māori youth — a cohort that has more than twice the suicide rate of non-Māori youth — say they feel like strangers in their own country, we need to take a long hard look at future plans and, perhaps more importantly, our history.

message from Ngātiwai teenagers