Anguish mounts over deaths

By Amanda Snow

Five young people have recently died in a small Northland community.
Five young people have recently died in a small Northland community.

A small Northland community is pleading for answers after the sudden deaths of five young people - one a boy aged just 10, locals say.

The spate of tragedies culminated in the death of 15-year-old schoolgirl Abigale-Rose Barnard on the final weekend of the school holidays.

Abigale's grieving father, Michael, says her death is his worst nightmare come true.

"There are so many unanswered questions," he said after her tangi last week.

"All of it is hard. The fact she will never be around again. The finality of it. She had such a bright future. It's such a tragic waste."

The deaths from the Taupo Bay area in the Far North follow Herald on Sunday reports on a similar cluster in Kawerau two years ago.

Together with the country's relentlessly high suicide rate, they are prompting calls for a nationwide suicide prevention publicity programme similar to that used to combat depression, and for government funding to be more effectively targeted.

Abigale's death has devastated her family, still reeling from the loss of her two young female cousins late last year. The stepmother of one, Gina Peterson, said the community had lost another teenage girl in June last year and a 10-year-old boy a few months later.

"It got to the point where you are numb," said Ms Peterson, who tutors local youth programmes. "It was my son, her cousin, who found Abigale and he was only 13."

Community members are speaking out in the hope of avoiding copycat suicides or pacts. Ms Peterson said it was time to openly discuss why Kiwi teenagers were dying. "Everything is hush-hush, keep it under the carpet," she said. "With my son and my daughter, losing so many people so close to them, we talk about it all the time."

She said the deaths all occurred in the school holidays. Boredom may have been a factor. Drugs and alcohol were also a concern.

Gwen Hawken, who has lost niece Abigale and two young cousins, believed social media, bullying and access to alcohol needed to be addressed. Critically, adults needed to involve young people in conversations around suicide.

"More help is needed in the community," she said. "They are trying to find a way but they don't know the next step. There's a certain age that needs to be targeted through the schools, through sports clubs."

Thirty-four people in Northland took their own lives in the year to June, compared to 26 the year before. The number of deaths overshadowed the region's road toll of 20 lives in the same period.

When Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean released national figures showing 541 people had committed suicide in the year to June 2013 he voiced his frustration.

- Northern Advocate

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