Unravelling Youth Suicide

Date published: July 1, 2012 at 8:11 am | Comments

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Michelle Elliott took a seat at a bench in the Whakatane District Court and removed two items from her handbag: a wood-framed photograph of her son Jordan Gray and a box of tissues.

She carefully placed the photograph on the bench – she takes it everywhere with her – and used several of the tissues in the next hour as the court heard details of Jordan’s death, as well as four other Kawerau youths who committed suicide during five months in late 2010 and early 2011.

Elliott didn’t expect any magic answers.

“I’m interested to see how they determine why my son died, because the only one who will know that is my son,” she told the Sunday Star-Times the previous day. “There were too many reasons, not just one. You can’t put it down to one.”

One after another, staccato-voiced police constables took the stand to describe the deaths of Jordan, 17, Kelly Karekare, 18, Te Haroto Araroa, 16, Tegan McGregor, 20, and Alex Mahuta, 17.

All had killed themselves using the same method, which coroner Wallace Bain suppressed, but there was no evidence that the suicides were copycats. Some had known each other, as you would expect in a small town, and Mahuta had been wearing a purple shirt in honour of his friend Karekare and died around his friend’s birthday.

But all had their own problems, and their own reasons for leaving this world. Some tried explaining it in notes that left more questions than answers.

Some had threatened to do it, but no-one took them seriously; one had had problems with his girlfriend; one had been molested as a child and had begun drinking heavily; one had moved in with a druggie and been stealing money from relatives.

The most harrowing evidence described how family members found them and desperately tried to revive them.

Jordan, who was very musical, played the drums before he died. There hadn’t been any change in his behaviour. He was excited about making a brazier at Kawerau College. A couple of his mates had killed themselves and his step-father asked him if he would ever do something like that.

“Nah dad, you have to have balls to do that,” he replied.

But Jordan had been having nightmares after an aunty died, dreaming he was in a coffin, and he told a Facebook friend he felt really alone.

Elliott told the court Jordan was a good son, quiet, humble and intelligent, and she never thought he would kill himself. She said more should have been done after an earlier spate of suicides in Kawerau.

“Nothing was done about that, maybe if they had followed through and brought in intervention … my son might be alive.”

Tuwharetoa Ki Kawerau Health, Education and Social Services chief executive Chris Marjoribanks, who is implementing a suicide prevention action plan for the town, confirms there was an earlier spate of suicides.

“We had a similar cycle about 15 years ago. Community structures were put in place, the tragedy is that the [Government] didn’t see the need for sustainable processes, they pulled back out again and the issue evolved. That’s why it’s so important to build capability within the community.”

A suicide expert who gave evidence at the coroners hearing said Kawerau had to take some of the blame for the deaths.

Lakes District Health Board child and youth mortality review co-ordinator Candy Cookson-Cox said any ongoing investigations needed to look at the quality of the environment in which at-risk youth were being raised.

This included the family, community, cultural and social fabric of the town itself.

“Healthy towns reflect healthy populations … unhealthy towns reflect this in the untimely and premature death of their young and most vulnerable populations.”

She said international research showed milling towns such as Kawerau developed around a single men’s camp and had a drinking culture.

“Unfortunately when the business of the town begins to die down, we actually see a lot of community dysfunction.”

Cookson-Cox was asked to look at common threads or patterns between the suicides.

She said common themes in each of the cases included undiagnosed mental health issues, early exposure to family conflict and tension, domestic violence, family disintegration and parental displacement, unresolved grief and loss issues, early disengagement from school, early contact with the criminal justice system and use of alcohol and drugs.

She said four of the five had been subjected to significant emotional and physical upheaval, but “I did not see any evidence of these children receiving support such as grief counselling to help them deal with their loss, nor any follow-up care from family, school, GP or other community services”.

“I do suspect that there is a series of unmet needs amongst all of these families and that the premature deaths of their children is reason enough to once again raise suicide prevention and postvention as an area requiring significant resourcing and continuing education and training.”

Tuwharetoa Ki Kawerau clinical manager Peta Ruha says part of the action plan for the town involves a close inspection of the work social agencies have done in the past.

“We’ve flipped the whole model on its head, we’ve looked at us too – what are we doing, how effective are we, what do we need to change?” She says the plan, which involves having agencies working more closely together, is working, with no suicides for almost a year.

Elliott has become heavily involved in the action plan, and has also set up a support group for families of young people who have committed suicide.

She has won a scholarship to study at a Maori suicide prevention course, and has met Prime Minister John Key.

She says she had nowhere to turn after Jordan died.

“With suicide, you have a sort of a boundary when you go to a grief group. They know how they lost theirs – we don’t. We never will know why our babies did this, a lot of us.

“There was nothing for those of us left behind … so I did it.”

She says many community leaders don’t want suicide being openly discussed for fear of creating copycats.

“Because the subject is so sensitive you weren’t allowed to talk about it, but I thought `That’s bullshit, because how can the family heal if they don’t talk about it?”‘

Elliott says it won’t bring her son back, but she wants to help others.

“When they left here they were unhappy, and therefore we’ve been left unhappy. It’s doing something positive about it that’s gonna give them some dignity. I’m just a humble mum trying to do the right thing for my boy.”

Coroner Wallace Bain has reserved his findings.

Source: fairfax nz