Fri 27 Oct 2017

Aroha and Suicide

"I have a disclaimer," Lily George declared at the commencement of her lecture.

"When I say 'you just gotta love them;, I don't mean to infer that those who commit suicide just weren't being loved enough. This is not about blaming whānau or friends, but presenting findings from the projects I will talk about tonight.''

That important fact out of the way, Dr George presented, "You just gotta love them! The place of aroha in research on Māori youth suicide prevention" - the fourth lecture in Ngā Ara Rangahau, the monthly WITT public research seminar series she launched in July.

At the heart of her discussion was what she acknowledged was a heavy topic – the rate of Māori youth suicide, and specifically how a change of approach in Northland, her home, had a significant and potentially long-living impact.

Through her role at Massey University, Dr George began working with Ngātiwai Education to build their research capacity and capability. Her previous work had been centred on Māori incarceration. But her work on Māori youth suicide prevention and youth development led to two projects – He ara toiora and Kokiritia te ora.

The research was accelerated following a 2012 spike in Maori youth suicide numbers in Northland – from five in 2011 to 19 in 2012. In that year, nationally the suicide death rate for Māori youth (15–24 years) was 48.0 per 100,000, compared with the non-Māori youth rate of 16.9 per 100,000. Nationally the figures continue to rise – 606 people in New Zealand took their own life in the 2016-17 year, up from 579 the previous year and 564 the year before that.

 She told her audience at Te Piere on Wednesday that Māori youth suicide figures were so disproportionate, the rate was the highest for any group in the world.

"It's amazing when you think of the beautiful country we live in."

Dr George said marae-based wānanga – cultural learning – was shown to be a vital element in changing the perception of youth. Aroha – which embraced more than simply "love" – promoted vitality and resilience.

The programme took young people on to the marae where they could reconnect with their culture. It had initially been planned to limit participation to 16 years and over, but by the end children as young as nine were attending.

But there were high hurdles, not least the perception that suicide was something not to be discussed, and something which was shameful.

Those and other hurdles were barriers preventing rangatahi connecting with older generations.

When the programme was moved further north and there was an acceptance from kaumātua of the need to be open about suicide, the benefits were clear to see.

"Rangatahi regarded the presence of kaumātua as settling, it was intergenerational support," she said. "Aroha is more than love, it is collective responsibility, using care to weave our collective worlds and respect for basic humanity. It is so significant, yet so simplistic.

But what it did not take into account was the complexities of the lives of those involved in the project.

"It's too easy to blame whānau – and in New Zealand, we are good at it."

Young Māori in the projects were commonly raised in impoverished households where there were multiple health issues, gang affiliations, drug abuse and sexual violence.

Dr George said this fabric that "we collectively weave" was symptomatic of historical trauma where people were unable to deal with events because of unresolved grief.

Aotearoa's indigenous people have been impacted by colonisation and it was "important to recognise the intergenerational transmission of trauma''.

Historical Trauma Theory is primarily about healing, however, and works on the basis of confronting the trauma, understanding it, grieving, and transcending it.

Dr George said reclaimed culture was a healing tool and she had seen that work within her own hapū, Te Kapotai, following their Treaty claim. Many in the hapū had become culturally disconnected over the years – as a child she and others were often kept away from their marae, one result of the corporal punishment experienced by her mother's generation as a deterrent to speaking te reo Māori.  The Treaty claim retrieved their history, knowledge of which was now freely available to the hapū. Today they are rebuilding culturally, socially, and economically, with a stronger political consciousness than previous decades.

Despite the success of her work, Dr George labelled the research the "worst and hardest projects" she had ever worked on.

She was overcome with emotion, though, when talking about the transformational personal journeys of young people.

One 15-year-old who had attempted suicide more than 20 times emerged from the programme with a new connection to those around her, becoming more confident and resilient. As part of her involvement, she had the self-harming scars on one arm covered with tattoos of her healing journey, was interviewed for Mana magazine and attended a symposium at Otago University.

Her personal challenges continue – including the death of her mother and the suicides of two whānau members – but she was planning for the future and wanted to be a social worker.

Dr George said the help they received on the marae was hugely significant, and a lesson.

"Too often our marae are not places where you can make mistakes," she said, referring to the tikanga learning of the youth. "And as one kaumātua said, 'Our wharenui are where we lay our mamae on the whāriki for it to be healed.'" But she said a defining moment for her was to see one youth with a background of domestic violence and gang involvement, standing on a marae and speaking of his worries about being in a dark place and asking for help, then being hugged by four other males who wept with him. "Too often our males are told to be staunch and suck it up". So seeing this display of male solidarity was close to miraculous, as was the spontaneous haka that followed.

The process was now moving to a third stage – Kokiritia te aroha – which would aim to provide a toolbox of resources for marae to cultivate their own community development programmes as a strategy for youth suicide prevention.

Dr George ended with the statement that "Surely it should be a goal for us all to ensure that our rangatahi grow to be confident and successful, strong in their connections to people and culture, with the knowledge and ability to lead us powerfully into the future."