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'We cursed ourselves for not seeing the signs': Tears, raw emotion as MPs tackle suicide prevention

Newshub logo Newshub 8/07/2021 Zane Small
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Warning: This article discusses suicide. 

Tears and raw emotion have been laid bare in Parliament as MPs tackled one of the heaviest and most personal topics: suicide prevention. 

The special parliamentary debate on Thursday afternoon was an acknowledgment of the Zero Suicide Aotearoa report released last year on World Suicide Prevention Day. 

The report was commissioned by the Mental Health and Addiction Wellbeing Group, a cross-party committee including Labour MP Louisa Wall, National MP Matt Doocey, ACT leader David Seymour, Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick and former NZ First MP Jenny Marcroft.

According to the report, each year an estimated 150,000 Kiwis think about taking their own life; approximately 50,000 make a suicide plan; 20,000 attempt to die by suicide; and more than 500 will do so.

a group of people posing for the camera: Watch: Health Minister Andrew Little spoke to The Hui about the Government's progress on mental health. © Newshub Watch: Health Minister Andrew Little spoke to The Hui about the Government's progress on mental health.

In 2019, 685 New Zealanders died by suicide. In 2020 it wasn't much better, with a drop of only 31 - 654 lives lost. The parliamentary debate highlighted how just about every Kiwi - even our high-profile Members of Parliament - have been affected by it. 

"As a brand new member of this House in my first year, I lost a young niece, just starting out in her life, to whakamomori," Labour MP Kiri Allan shared with the House. 

"A young, beautiful wahine Māori; a young, beautiful woman, 18 years old, passionate about her culture, a love for our reo, a strong whānau unit. I remember at that tangihanga, we all held each other and we cursed ourselves for not doing enough. We cursed ourselves for not seeing the signs."

National MP Harete Hipango has also experienced heartbreak. She held back tears, reflecting on the loss of her two nephews. 

"It's very dear to my heart. I lost two nephews to suicide this year - two young Māori men in their early 30s. During my maiden speech, the twin of my deceased nephew was here, and he found his brother. And regrettably, the mental health service wasn't there when he needed them. 

"We have all lost loved ones, and what we strive for to come out of this report is that it makes a difference and that it saves lives."

ACT MP Mark Cameron also opened up about how suicide has affected him, particularly living in a rural farming community where suicide rates have been higher. The dairy farmer held back tears as he shared his memories.  

"In 32 years, I have seen it all. I have seen drug use run amok and depression. I have also buried four of my farming colleagues. Rural folk often in hushed tones refer to it as the black dog or the hitchhiker or the bloody thief in the night.

"Farmers and rural folk are often pragmatists and we tend to treat mental illness like broken bones or the flu. But in truth, it's very different. Ultimately, we know we can't put time frames on these things. Sadly, the help we often want or need just simply isn't coming. 

"These are good people, these were us, they were our people, and they are Kiwis."

Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer mourned for all the Māori lives lost to suicide. The general suicide rate in 2017-2018 was 13.67 deaths per 100,000. The rate for Māori rose from 23.7 percent to a rate of 28.23 in 2018-2019. 

"Māori have, sadly, suffered under these systemic conditions, which perpetuate shame. The rates for Māori are horrific. They are higher than any other ethnic group in Aotearoa and are concentrated among our rangatahi." 

The sobering debate gave a rare glimpse of unity in an otherwise combative Parliament. But National giving one of its speaking slots to Labour MP Louisa Wall brought back some of the more familiar language. 

"I think it is absolutely disgusting Labour blocked Louisa Wall from taking a call in this debate. Louisa Wall is a founding member of the cross-party mental health group," National MP Matt Doocey said in his speech. 

"She championed this report and worked hard on it. She has been blocked from taking a call on this debate, so National has given Louisa one of their calls - one of our calls - because it's important that Louisa has a call in this debate."

Wall, in her speech, thanked National Party deputy leader Dr Shane Reti for the opportunity to contribute to the kōrero.

The Government has come under pressure over mental health, after Newshub revealed that of the $1.9 billion mental health package announced in 2019, just five acute mental health beds had materialised since then.  

Health Minister Andrew Little told The Hui last week that of the $235 million set aside for building mental health and addiction facilities, about $9 million had been spent. About $800 million of the $1.9 billion has gone to other Government departments.

Little defended the Government's record in his speech on suicide prevention. 

"We've added 520 fulltime-equivalent roles at the front line to deal with those with mild to moderate mental health conditions. Just in the month of May alone this year, more than 20,000 sessions were offered to New Zealanders who are in that position. We currently have a population coverage of those services of about 1.4 million, and over the next two years we'll add that and increase it to about 3.7 million."

Little also defended the Government choosing not to adopt a target for the reduction in the number of suicides. 

"We didn't accept that it was right to set a target," he said. "If we accept suicide is preventable, then no suicide is acceptable. That's the premise on which this Government has developed its policy, and I believe that is a sentiment that this House also accepts."

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