Saving lives

Pretty words and flow­ery phrases don’t hide the fact that the Gov­ern­ment is pass­ing the buck on sui­cide preven­tion

Weekend Herald - - NEWS -

At 20 years old Lizzie Marvelly made elab­o­rate plans to take her own life. In hind­sight, she says, she had ev­ery­thing to live for. Today she tells her own story as she ar­gues the Gov­ern­ment is pass­ing the buck on sui­cide preven­tion.

Mike King is a straight- up sort of guy. He calls a spade a spade. I don’t know him well, but when­ever I’ve spent time with him his au­then­tic­ity has ra­di­ated from his heart. King cares about men­tal health. He cares about saving lives. He cares about peo­ple. And he won’t waste his time with buck- pass­ing and, as he calls it, “buttcov­er­ing”. Not when in­ac­tion means that peo­ple will die.

That’s the harsh truth when it comes to men­tal health. When the Gov­ern­ment doesn’t step up, peo­ple die. When strug­gling Ki­wis fol­low the of­fi­cial ad­vice and go to hos­pi­tals with sui­ci­dal thoughts only to be sent home a few hours later, peo­ple die.

When vul­ner­a­ble kids are too ashamed to reach out and ask for help, peo­ple die. Fam­i­lies lose loved ones. Com­mu­ni­ties lose valu­able mem­bers. New Zealan­ders lose their fu­tures be­cause they fell through a net that was sup­posed to catch them be­fore it was too late.

This week, King slammed the Min­istry of Health over its new Sui­cide Preven­tion Strat­egy — a strat­egy that didn’t ac­tu­ally name any clear tar­get in sui­cide re­duc­tion. It used lots of nice words about path­ways and healthy fu­tures, com­bined with a pep­per­ing of te reo proverbs and con­cepts and some pretty graph­ics in calm­ing shades of blue and green, but the tar­get the ad­vi­sory board had ap­par­ently agreed upon — a 20 per cent re­duc­tion in sui­cides over the next 10 years — was nowhere to be seen. It had some­how dis­ap­peared, tak­ing with it the bench­mark against which to mea­sure the suc­cess of the plan. Read into that what you will.

I can un­der­stand why King is an­gry. When you’ve stared down the bar­rel of sui­cide, the word tends to stand out any time you see it. When you hear sto­ries about peo­ple who’ve taken their own lives, it can feel like an elec­tric shock run­ning through your core. When some­one close to you makes that ter­ri­ble de­ci­sion it af­fects you deeply. If only they could’ve just held on a lit­tle longer, you think. Then comes the guilty, melan­cholic, grief- stricken sense of grat­i­tude — it could’ve been me.

And it could’ve. When I was 20, I eas­ily could’ve be­come a sui­cide statis­tic. I had plans. Elab­o­rate ones. When I ended it ( and in my mind it was when, not if ) I would make sure that I suc­ceeded. There would be no com­ing back. It would be over.

With the power of hind­sight, I can see that I had ev­ery­thing to live for, but from my van­tage point at the bot­tom of the abyss, I saw noth­ing but dark­ness. No one makes those plans, or that hor­rif­i­cally fi­nal de­ci­sion, in the right frame of mind. There is, how­ever, a back­handed sense of logic to it. When every part of you hurts, when your brain has be­come your very own cus­tomised live- in tor­turer, the de­sire to lib­er­ate your­self from that agony, and from the cloud you feel you are throw­ing over ev­ery­one you love, is hard to ar­gue with. The world would be a bet­ter place, I thought — over and over again — with­out me in it.

The point of shar­ing this per­sonal tragedy ( which thank­fully had a happy end­ing) is not to wal­low in any sense of self pity. I am one of the lucky ones. My fam­ily could af­ford to pay for me to ac­cess pri­vate men­tal health ser­vices. With the com­bined sup­port of my fam­ily, friends, col­leagues, GP and most of all, my psy­chol­o­gist, I clawed my way out of the hole. Thou­sands of dol­lars and three years later, I threw the black dog off my back. To this day it is my proud­est achieve­ment. I sur­vived.

Af­ter read­ing about the ex­pe­ri­ences of other Ki­wis strug­gling with men­tal health, I’m not sure my story would have ended the same way in the pub­lic health sys­tem. I’m not for a sec­ond blam­ing the health­care prac­ti­tion­ers and pro­fes­sion­als who work them­selves to the point of ex­haus­tion to care for their clients and pa­tients. The pub­lic health sys­tem does the best it can with the lim­ited re­sources it has, but when the money runs short the nor­mal cliches be­come alarm­ingly real. Lives are lit­er­ally on the line, and if peo­ple don’t re­ceive the vi­tal care they need, we may well be talk­ing about an ac­tual am­bu­lance at the bot­tom of a cliff.

I don’t know what it will take for our lead­ers to take men­tal health se­ri­ously. All ev­i­dence seem­ingly points to an ex­er­cise in sweep­ing the men­tally ill un­der the rug. Who cares that Life­line is buck­ling un­der the weight of thou­sands of dis­tress calls it can’t an­swer af­ter be­ing stripped of Gov­ern­ment fund­ing? Look at Bill’s pizza selfie! Yes, there are strug­gling kids in Can­ter­bury who are wait­ing months to be seen by men­tal health ser­vices, but let’s all get an­gry about how a re­cent in­quiry into the dire state of our men­tal health ser­vices was co- or­di­nated by sup­pos­edly “left wing, anti- Gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers” rather than the sto­ries of a dan­ger­ously over­loaded health sys­tem that is fail­ing Ki­wis in need.

We’ve seen a range of avoid­ance tac­tics from the Gov­ern­ment on this is­sue, in­clud­ing shoot­ing of the mes­sen­ger, duck­ing, ig­nor­ing and now butt- cov­er­ing, but there’s one thing that’s ab­so­lutely clear. The buck stops with them. The longer the Gov­ern­ment min­imises this is­sue, the more peo­ple will die. And that’s on them.

God knows what they’ll call me for say­ing all this, but the sim­ple fact is that this is­sue should not be a po­lit­i­cal one. Look­ing af­ter vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple with men­tal health con­cerns should just be what we do. Men­tal ill­ness af­fects one in six Ki­wis.

Re­gard­less of who we vote for, we all know some­one who has needed help at one point or an­other.

Of­fer­ing a help­ing hand in a time of need should be a pri­or­ity of any New Zealand Gov­ern­ment. It’s time for this one to step up.

● Lizzie Marvelly was judged best gen­eral opinion writer at the Canon Media Awards last night.

Lives are lit­er­ally on the line, and if peo­ple don’t re­ceive the vi­tal care they need, we may well be talk­ing about an ac­tual am­bu­lance at the bot­tom of a cliff.

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