Jim Anderton Speech On Maori Suicide Prevention
Jim Anderton Speech to Kia Piki Te Ora National Hui, Otaramarae Rd, Rotorua
Tēnā Koutou Kiatoa No Mai – Haere Mai
You have spent a few days here talking about Maori suicide prevention. You’ve heard from treatment professionals and from experts from here and overseas. And I know you are motivated by the pain and trauma of loss, and by a determination to do something to change the future.
There is a story I heard a few years ago that had its origins in a 1990s best-seller called Chicken Soup for the Soul. It’s been modified a bit by people who have added their own experience - but it is a story many of us know touches on the difference individuals can make.
It starts out with a real event in a young man’s life which had a profound effect on him. His name was Robert. One day when he was in his first year at high school, he saw a boy from his class walking home from school. The boy’s name was Kyle.
It looked like he was carrying all his school books. And Robert thought to himself, ‘Why would anyone take all his books home on a Friday? He must be a real boring swat.’
As he was walking, he saw a bunch of kids hassling Kyle. They knocked all his books out of his arms and tripped him up so he landed in the dirt. His glasses went flying, and he saw them land in the grass about ten feet from him. Kyle looked up and he had this terrible sadness in his eyes.
Robert really felt for him. So he jogged over, as Kyle crawled around looking for his glasses. He could see that Kyle was trying not to cry. Robert picked up his glasses and as he handed them to Kyle, he said ‘Those guys are jerks. They really should get a life.’ Kyle looked at him and said ‘Hey, thanks.’ Robert helped him pick up his books, and it turned out the two lived quite near each other.
Kyle said he had gone to a private school before now. Robert had never hung out with a private school kid before. So they ended up spending a bit of time together over the weekend, kicking a football around, talking and finding they had a lot in common.
Monday morning came, and there was Kyle with the huge stack of books again. Robert stopped him and said ‘Boy, you are gonna really build some serious muscles with this pile of books everyday!” Kyle just smiled.
They were both going to university at the end of high school. Kyle was going to be a doctor. He was top of his class and very popular with the girls!
head prefect in his final year and was asked to prepare a
speech for the graduation ceremony. Robert was there,
looking up at him from the crowd - at how he’d filled out
and how popular he was. Robert was even a little jealous of
Kyle cleared his throat and started his speech: “Graduation is a time to thank those who helped you make it through those tough years. Your parents, your teachers, your siblings, maybe a sports coach...but mostly your friends.
“I am here to tell you all that being a friend to someone is the best gift you can give them. I am going to tell you a story…”. Robert, sitting in the audience looked at Kyle with disbelief as he told the story of the first day they had met. Kyle said he had become deeply depressed. He had planned to kill himself over the weekend. He talked of how he had cleaned out his locker so his Mum wouldn't have to do it after his death, and was carrying all his books home. He looked straight at Robert and said, “Thanks for being there, Robert. You made a difference”.
Five hundred lives a year - nearly ten a
week - end in New Zealand through suicide. Many more than we
have in road accidents. Many of us know the trauma and the
sense of loss.
We can simply talk about the issue, or we can do something about it.
We don’t know everything about how to prevent suicide, but we know enough to make a difference. For example - and it’s just one example from many I could give - when we look at the facts they tell us the risk of suicide is increased twenty-fold for those suffering from depression.
And the facts tell us that most New Zealanders know depression is relatively common. Most can name at least one symptom. And ninety-nine percent say they're willing to be supportive of someone with depression.
But while we say we’re willing to pitch in and lend a hand, most people with depression don’t look for help because of the stigma they feel this illness carries. We can do something about that. And we can make a difference as a result.
When I was Minister responsible for suicide prevention policies, we ran the hugely successful John Kirwan ads on TV that encouraged people who were depressed to seek help. We launched a website – www.thelowdown.co.nz.
It’s a place on the net where kids can go and find out about how to get help. It uses role models young New Zealanders can identify with. These are examples of how we are able to be there, to extend that helping hand to people.
What we found was that they were
effective among a particular group.
The John Kirwan ads have been more effective at reaching adult men; the lowdown website with teens.
So when we talk about Maori suicide, we need to talk about adapting tools that work for individuals, and not thinking that one solution fits everyone. We have to be tough about the fact we’ll get criticised for it too.
I was criticised commonly enough by people who should know better for paying for the John Kirwan ads - even though we could prove they saved lives.
I have been in a call centre when the John Kirwan ad has been screened on television. The switchboards light up as people realise there is something they can do - there is a place they can go to, to get help.
Men, in particular, would ring in response to that ad - and men in New Zealand are traditionally very reticent about expressing their feelings and asking for help.
The more people get treatment for
depression, the more suicide rates will come down.
So these sorts of initiatives make a difference. They extend a hand when it’s needed, like the young man in the story I started with.
It was only a few years ago that I used to criticise the way the health system failed to respond to high risk or actual suicide attempts.
When someone made a suicide attempt, their stomach would be pumped out or their wounds patched up and they were sent home. But the bit that was broken wasn’t even treated at all. Families in crisis didn’t know where to go for help.
On my watch we
invested more than $23 million to support suicide prevention
To put that in perspective, when I took on responsibility for suicide prevention, we had a total national prevention operations budget of $28,000. Before I left office, I launched a suicide strategy and an action plan for the period 2008 to 2012.
In 2009 a review of the first year of the action plan’s implementation found most of the items in the plan were underway, and the review provided some accountability for ongoing progress.
But there was more to do.
I notice that those progress reports have not been updated since 2009: In other words, it’s not possible to find out the status of progress on the strategy. And if it’s not possible to get those facts, it is impossible to hold anyone accountable for implementing the strategy.
I haven’t seen much evidence that the ministerial committee on suicide meets more than a couple of times a year, and when it does, that it does not do much more than read a few reports.
Other than recommendations on the reporting of suicide, the Ministry of Health hasn’t published anything about suicide except ministerial minutes since 2009 - whereas for the previous decade it was busy producing major reports, statistics and action plans at regular intervals.
The government in which I was a
Minister funded research into suicide prevention as part of
the suicide strategy we put together, and those programmes
have updated our knowledge base.
It’s important to keep the momentum up.
There is, however, some progress. The suicide rate has come down by about 25% since its peak in the late nineties.
But this conference is about Maori suicide because the Maori suicide rate is highest for any group. The causes are always complex.
I often make the point that the suicide toll is about the same as the road toll, but there is not a safety belt you can wear that reduces suicides. You can’t just slow down cars and get results.
I know that researchers have identified that one big risk factor for Maori suicides is that there are higher numbers for those who are not connected to their Maori heritage and Maoritanga. The other major factors are poor general health, use of drugs, including alcohol, and, especially cannabis – as well as being the victim of abuse.
These are all issues we need to make more progress on for Maori as a whole.
The poor health status of Maori in New Zealand, compared to the health status of the rest of the population is indefensible and unacceptable. We need to recognize the consequences that flow from that and be prepared to try new treatment models.
We can’t deny, either, the link to incomes and employment.
Likewise with drugs - I hear a lot of argument that people believe their civil liberties are harmed by criminalising drug abuse. But the facts are clear that cannabis use is associated with suicide – particularly Māori suicide - and that causes much more serious harm than law enforcement causes.
We need to take substance abuse seriously. Cannabis use is associated with higher suicide rates; so too is being a victim of abuse.
I didn’t hear that mentioned much by the people who marched in the street to protest at parliament removing the legal defence for hitting kids.
Parliament made that decision - nearly every party agreed - because of our high rates of child abuse.
Targeting child abuse is one factor among many in targeting suicide.
Now the government is talking about throwing more people off benefits like the DPB - that will make it harder still for mothers to remove themselves and their kids from dangerous, violent and abusive homes.
And that means that even if the abuser doesn’t kill – and most don’t - some victims will end up taking their own lives.
These are examples of how we have to think about a lot of issues if we want to make a difference to our unacceptable suicide rates.
A caring country must respond when we see a problem we need to resolve.
Every suicide is a tragedy, and I acknowledge the distress and hurt of those who lose their loved ones in this way. We can make a difference if we are strong enough to create a society where New Zealanders feel valued and nurtured – and care for each other.
We can make a difference if we are strong enough to create a New Zealand that values lives, and where New Zealanders are supported in the rough seas and strengthened in the calm.
I want to close by thanking you for your work in this area.
It is only by exploring ideas and caring about solutions that we will ever find ways to help.
I started with a story about a young man who was amazed to find he was the one who had made a difference.
All of us have it within us to be that one. And in your efforts to help others, I wish you all the best.