Warning: This article is about youth suicide and may be distressing for some readers.


Tāwhanga Nopera knows only too well what it's like to hit rock bottom.

"My dad died when I was 21 and that had a really big impact on me, and about the same time I broke up with the boyfriend that I had at the time and it was all just too much on top of university, and I decided to give up. And within that year I'd contracted HIV."

Being Māori and identifying as whakawahine (the Māori term which Tāwhanga uses to describe himself as being woman like or "performing as a woman") or transgender had its own challenges.

"If you are sexually diverse you become sexualised by society and so people prey upon you because your sexuality is not the norm or is not perceived the norm so people think; well abnormal behaviours are things that I can perform on you."

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To cope with the many traumatic events, Tāwhanga was self-medicating on alcohol.

It got so bad, sometimes suicide seemed like a viable option. But help came from an obvious source, which had been with him all along - his own culture.

"Every weaver that I know, every single weaver that I know says that weaving saved their life, and I know weaving saved my life, if I hadn't learnt to weave I know that I wouldn't have been able to make sense of myself the way that I do today.

"So you immediately recognise that regardless of what you've felt about body your whole life long that actually your body can do really special things, it can make beauty, it can make beauty from thin grass, that grows everywhere."

Mr Nopera says weaving helps him "get out of my thinking head."

His 20-year journey since that low point, has had its ups and downs. And he's used his incredible story as a case study to help complete his PhD in Creative Practice.

His research examined how weaving - and other creative activities including performance art, digital video, digital image and creative writing to explore empower Maori knowledge about sexuality and gender. And in particular sexual trauma as a result of gender binarism.

Tāwhanga says helping people reconnect with culture is one way to help resolve the high suicide rates in Aotearoa.

"Know your neighbours your friends, what can you do as a friend and a neighbour to make sure the people that are around you are okay. Talk. Ask. Spend time.

"Those are simple things, those are really simple things. It doesn't take much to say to a person; are you okay? That's inclusive you know. And most people today do not feel okay about something.

"Most people today have anxiety about something or feel under stressed about something, and that's the easiest way to help someone feel like they can cope, or that there is hope, by saying hey are you okay.

"Because suicide and self-harm is about hopelessness. Is about feeling hopeless, and it's not about wanting to die, it's about wanting to take the feeling of hopelessness away. So what can you do as a person to help other people feel better. It can be as simple as just smiling."

In addition to community contact and care, Tāwhanga's research found that creative expression and cultural practice are essential for healing trauma.

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:

DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234

There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.

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