Suicide's toll on Māori youth laid bare in new report

7:25 pm on 7 May 2018

When Kamo High School student Mia Dunn committed suicide, just age 14, her death not only devastated her family - it added her to an alarming toll.

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Mia Dunn died in 2012, aged 14. Photo: Supplied

The Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee's most recent report found that 20 Māori children aged 10 to 14 killed themselves in a five-year period - 60 percent of all suicides in that age group.

The report covered 2012 to 2016, but support workers say the situation is still just as bad.

A full list of support services can be found at the bottom of this story. If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Mia Dunn was one of those 20 children - the Whangarei teenager died just two weeks after her boyfriend Colin also committed suicide, also aged 14.

Her father, Brenden Dunn, said Mia was a quiet girl, but grounded and strong - he never suspected she would take her own life.

"She seemed to be a little bit wiser than her peers, maybe because she was just so quiet and didn't really talk as much as the others," he said.

"She was into sports, netball, music. She was one of those girls who loved doing her hair and straightening her hair and she was just an all-round really nice girl."

Not enough young people knew where or how to get help when they needed it, Mr Dunn said.

"They isolate themselves in their own mind, they just don't know where to go - and if they do know where to go, I think they feel ashamed or embarrassed or under-valued."

Adults needed better education about how to treat children and teenagers with more empathy, he said.

"We need a bit more understanding about what our teenagers are going through in this era."

A teenage Māori boy looking unhappy

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Nati for Life Trust suicide support group in Gisborne dealt with predominantly Māori whānau.

Manager Tuta Ngarimu said Māori youth suicide in the community was occurring at an unprecedented rate.

"We had a bad year last year. At one part there we were losing one every two weeks," he said.

"Our worst weekend was [when] we had a mother, a father, their 14-year-old daughter, two 15-year-old girls, and we had them all on suicide watch.

"That means we had someone with them 24/7 watching them until we could get them to the appropriate service on Monday morning and walk them through the door."

Parents needed to make sure their children felt comfortable talking about their problems, he said.

"What I'm seeing with a lot of whānau that have lost their kids, what happened was they could see things but they rarely started to try and talk to their kids.

"Though they love their kids, the more they tried to talk to their kids the more their kids started to close them down," he said.

"They thought the next best thing was, I better step back and give them some space, and that's a huge decision to make.

"It's that crucial time there, when you decide to step back, where you seriously need to think about who can jump in that space and don't leave them."

'Pills ain't the way'

Haley Grace-Hollis, from Gisborne, has lost four siblings to suicide in the last ten years.

"Our brother, he was only 18, and eight months later we lost our sister and she was 19," she said.

"And then in 2015 we lost another brother and he was just shy of his 30th birthday. And nine months later we lost another sister [who] just had her 21st birthday."

Four of Haley Grace-Hollis' siblings took their own lives over a decade. From left: Shane Grace, LJ Grace, Fianza Grace and Anahera Grace.

Four of Haley Grace-Hollis' siblings took their own lives over a decade. From left: Shane Grace, LJ Grace, Fianza Grace and Anahera Grace. Photo: Supplied / Hollis whanau

One of her brothers had sought help before his death but, but Ms Grace-Hollis, 25, did not think the help he got was enough.

"He was part of the mental health system but ... he was just provided pills," she said.

"I know it works in some cases, but to me it doesn't. The pills ain't the way and for his case that wasn't the way either."

Since the death of her siblings, her whānau met once every two weeks to re-connect and talk about life.

"We have at least two hours together of bonding time and learning waiata from where we come from," she said.

"[It] also gives us time to just talk to each other and see how everyone's been and we're sort of making time for each other now.

"It's brought us closer together."

The report found Māori tended to be younger when they committed suicide than their Pākehā counterparts.

Māori suicide deaths peaked between 16 to 20-year-olds. For New Zealand Europeans the peak was at age 20.

Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee member Felicity Dumble said there were "all sorts of factors" contributing to the overrepresentation of Māori in suicide statistics.

"Socio-economic [status] is part of that, it's also all sorts of intergenerational trauma in terms of the consequences of colonisation, the impact of institutionalised racism, how people are dealt with and how we meet their needs."

Brenden Dunn said it was important parents made their kids feel valued.

"Connect with your kids, not over Facebook, turn your devices off and go out and go for a hike, smell the air, go to the beach.

"To other Māori families - to other fathers - lead by example, give up the drugs, give up the alcohol, better yourself for your kids and connect with them. Make them feel valued."

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

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)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email

What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.