7 Oct 2015

'We need to make it OK to talk about problems'

7:59 pm on 7 October 2015

Important Māori figures, including comedian Mike King, are working to address the Māori suicide rate, which new figures show is the highest in three years.

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Photo: 123RF

The latest provisional data from the Chief Coroner shows 130 Māori took their own lives in the past year - 22 more than the previous year. Within that group, 93 people were men.

Māori comedian Mike King has been open about his battle with depression and speaks about suicide prevention in schools and communities around the country.

He told Radio New Zealand the high number of Māori males committing suicide came back to the expectations placed on Maori males growing up: to be hard, staunch and to hold on to and not admit to problems.

"Until it changes, the figures are going to keep climbing the way they are," he said.

Comedian Mike King

Comedian Mike King Photo: Supplied

"I maintain this - I say this round the country [...] a depressive thought, a suicidal thought won't kill you. Holding on to those thoughts - that's the killer. We need to make it okay for people to come out and talk about their problems. Unfortunately for my generation it's too late - we will always have that 'harden up, stay staunch' mentality."

He noted that the suicide figures dropped off between the ages of 44 and 49, around the time in his own life where he had sought counselling.

"By the time you get to 44, you look around at the damage that you've caused by not talking, and think 'I need to get some help'. [...] It's not a weakness to ask for help."

He said his own problems had stemmed from a lack of self-esteem and not liking who he was.

"The inner critic that everyone has was just pounding away, telling me I was useless."

Getting into comedy gave him a sense of being liked by those around him, sending him on what he called a disastrous path to self-esteem based on the approval of others. Mr King said there were parallels between comedy and young people trying to feel better through getting 'likes' on social media.

"They don't feel like they're getting that approval at home."

He said suicide wasn't necessarily related to socioeconomic issues, as more people who killed themselves were employed rather than unemployed.

Ultimately, said Mr King, money needed to be spent on the 80 percent of people who do not have suicidal thoughts, changing their attitude to mental illness.

'We need to discuss these issues more'

Dr Keri Lawson-Te Aho of Otago University - who researches suicide in Māori populations - said the increase is partly due to Māori men struggling with their sexual and gender identity.

"When those two kaupapa intersect, ethnicity, cultural identity and sexual and gender identities, then we must be looking at an elevated risk."

She said not enough was known about suicide rates for takatāpui, or gay communities, which was not good enough.

Dr Lawson-Te Aho believed Māori were still impacted by historical conditions such as a breakdown of Māori culture and loss of land, through colonisation.

She wanted to see mainstream services implement better strategies for Māori

Dr Lawson-Te Aho said prevention strategies stem from clinical findings, which did not always work for Māori populations.

"I know that some of my colleagues, Māori community health workers, are trying to implement this thing called reducing access to the means of suicide - hiding the rope, removing the bullets from the guns. You know that stuff just does not work with our population."

Dr Lawson Te Aho said the impact of losing a son or father through suicide changes whakapapa and increased the chance that their whānau will consider suicide as a viable option.

The group Kia Piki Te Ora is also working to address the issue.

Michael Naera, one of its project leaders based in Rotorua, said iwi leaders need to discuss suicide prevention.

"I think Maori leaders are wanting to come onboard but they simply don't know how to: as Maoridom in general, I think we need to discuss these issues a bit more, so our rangatahi and our elders are on the same wavelength."

He wants the government to support Kaumatua with meetings and resources.

"Holding a series of wanaga or hui around the country to discuss these issues and then secondly to provide resources for those communities to develop their own strategies and their own plans to look at preventing suicide in their own communities."

But young Māori are the most at risk, with 15 to 29 year olds making up half of all Māori suicides in the last year.

Mental Health Foundation spokesperson Witi Ashby said older people needed to listen to the ideas from rangatahi.

"It's our rangatahi's voice that we want to hear, so therefore it's actually putting all our resources behind our rangatahi so that their voices can be heard."

Peta Ruha is the clinical manager for Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau Health, Education and Social Services.

She said the community had been working hard to reduce suicides in the area but there was no quick fix.

"I guess in terms of rates being on the rise it's a continuous reminder that it's not a quick fix and that it takes many hands to contribute to the solutions."

Ms Ruha said one new initiative is teaching whanau how to help stop relatives taking their lives

"The reality, from the work that we have been doing in the last three years, that's come through really clearly is that whanau are taking care of themselves and for a whole lot of different reasons whanau are not seeking out the support of secondary sectors or providers."

She said families who had lost relatives to suicide need to be at the forefront of initiatives aimed at saving the live's of others.

Where to get help:

  • Lifeline - 0800 543 354
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Healthline - 0800 611 116
  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666
  • Chinese Lifeline - 0800 888 880
  • Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757