14 Jul 2020

Shot Bro: Rob Mokaraka on acting against suicide

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 14 July 2020

In 2009, actor Rob Mokaraka's mental health woes played out on a very public stage, so he took to the stage to help in his own - and others' recovery.

He'd set himself up to be shot by police - and fortunately only ended up in hospital. Depressed he rang police to report the sighting of an armed man, describing his own appearance and then walked up the street with what appeared to be a firearm. When confronted by armed police he refused orders to stand down and was shot in the chest.

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Photo: Vanessa Patea

Mokaraka took his experience of what came before, during and after that point and packaged it into a one-man play called Shot Bro: Confessions of a Depressed Bullet, which he's toured all over New Zealand.

The central message: get help before it's too late. His journey is detailed in a new documentary Shot Bro, screening on Māori Television and The Spinoff website. 

Touring with his one-man play is part of his permanent journey towards greater healing that helps inform him as much as it informs others.

“It’s very important to me and it’s also my healing tool… as I’m sharing I’m learning and I’m just providing safe spaces for people to share. I’ve been told multiple times that I’ve got something to relate to and please keep well,” he tells Kathryn Ryan.

The show is an Intimate experience, with Mokaraka welcoming guests, making sure they’re comfortably embedded within the space to get the most out of the experience.

After each show has ended there is a forum for people to share their thoughts and feelings about what they’ve experienced. Even after that, an opportunity is created where theatre-goers can approach Mokaraka individually over a cup of tea. It’s not an experience he feels overwhelmed by, but it is something that has needed to be managed.

“I had to figure out ways to navigate this so I don’t hold people’s grief. I’ve fell over a few times face first in my first year in particular, because I was trying to hold everyone’s problems and save the universe.

“I realised after consulting a lot of people, who are the healers, psychiatrists, you need to find a safe way to process yourself. So, I’m just there to safely hold the space, I’m not there to hold the problem.”

Emotional intelligence and an ability to discern our internal states and introspect has been lacking in New Zealand and has exacerbated mental health problems, he says.

“We haven’t been brought up in a way to show vulnerability. It’s like we need to unlearn some old habits in order to be vulnerable, which is actually courageous and say, ‘hey I’m feeling really crap and this is why my behaviour has been like this… because I don’t know how to process these emotional triggers.”

He says the show took him seven years to write and he had a lot of help along the way.

The process of writing began just after his near fatal experience.

“I was in hospital. My guts cut wide open, traumatised mentally, physically, spiritually. Family, friends looking at me wanting to cry when they saw the state I was in and I was trying to figure it out, so as a writer I was writing thoughts, feelings, some poetry, short stories, just trying to figure out why am I in this state of trauma.

“What happened to me, why did I do this?… I started to formulate a first draft and the Mental Health Foundation came on board to get the first opening and presentation of it up in Whangarei in 2016.”

Humour got him through. Humour’s role transmuting pain and trauma into something safe and observable is part of Mokaraka’s personality and part of the transformative power of his play, bringing light into the darkness.

“These things are too heavy to hold. When I say humour it’s a metaphor for light, to put more light on hurt that needs time to process… It’s also a trick, by the way, to get your security systems down and to get to your heart,” he says.

What he wants people to understand, ultimately and profoundly, is that no suicide is valid, our lives have intrinsic value and we are never alone, we are always loved, whether we are aware of it at the time or not.

The personal and physiological trauma of attempted suicide was something Mokaraka had to deal with, but what made it more difficult was the impact this had on his family.

“That was trauma upon trauma at the time, with the way the media were reacting in coming after my family and coming after my friends… and I was very lucky my agent and other friends came to bat for me because I wasn’t able to defend myself.

“I come from a long line of bullets of whakapapa back to the land wars,” Mokaraka says in the introduction to the documentary,

Intergenerational trauma is touched on in the play, as is the legacy of colonial displacement and dissonance, bringing layers of complexity to the mental health problems many Māori men face.

“That’s through your mother’s line, your father’s line. Then you understand a little bit more about why you ‘are’… so you can say ‘ah, these are some of the traits of my ancestors’.”

The shooting wasn’t the only crisis in his life. Before then as a boy he had been sexually abused, something that he needed to consult a psychiatrist about when Shot Bro was launched, as those memories came to the surface.

“I had compartmentalised them in such a way that my brain said, ‘these aren’t your memories, these are someone else’s you’re holding on to’ and that’s how I was dealing with it until I saw a shrink again and confided in some close friends.

“It was unpacking that, which was core to my trauma, and then as a child, if the adults don’t have the skills and tools to navigate trauma, stress, pressure, you’ll just copy how they deal with it.

That applies to society as well. A lot of people don’t know how to process hurt so they offload it on to others.”

Mokaraka's father is a Vietnam veteran, who faced his own trauma of war. “I know for a fact my Dad is still healing and he’s doing a great job if it.”

His father talks about his feelings on the shooting in the documentary. He initially said he wouldn’t speak on camera, but changed his mind when he became less uncomfortable with those involved in the project.

“I stepped outside because I didn’t want to impede what my Dad was going to say and perhaps deep down I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear it. So, when I did watch it on the documentary I was quite teary-eyed and quite proud of my Dad because that was not what he wanted to do, but he did it.”

As a community within New Zealand civil society, help for those suffering from mental health issues is there Mokaraka says, but genuine empathy and compassion must inform and guide public services and organisations.

“Everyone, all organisations are doing the best that they can. I know that for a fact… No system is perfect, but all I say to, especially organisations, you’ve got to put aroha, compassion into the room and you have to create that safe environment… or nothing is going to change.”

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz