Olivia Carville is an investigative reporter with the NZ Herald.

Forgotten victims: The hidden toll of the Christchurch earthquakes

New Zealand has vowed to never forget the 185 people who died on February 22, 2011. But what about those who took their own lives in the aftermath of the disaster? Read and watch our special report by Olivia Carville on the hidden toll of the earthquakes.

The Christchurch earthquakes have been linked to at least 40 suicides, a Herald investigation of coroners' reports has found.

This figure has led to international trauma academics calling for research into the possible correlation, backed up by the chief coroner at the time who says someone should have joined the dots.

Over the past two months, the Herald has analysed more than 200 coronial findings and reached out to dozens of families to determine just how many people have taken their own lives in a major depressive episode linked to the disaster.

We found 40 people battled with earthquake-related stress, anxiety or paranoia before killing themselves between December 2010 and June 2014, even though Christchurch's suicide rate did not increase over this time.

In most cases the quakes weren't the sole cause of the deaths with many individuals suffering from long-term mental health problems.

While not scientific or conclusive in its findings, this investigation is the first of its kind in New Zealand and has raised questions about how the issue has remained hidden for so long.

Many families believe they are the forgotten victims of one of the nation's deadliest disasters.

One widow who lost her husband three years ago was silent on the phone for a long time before saying: "I can't believe there are more people out there who went through this.

"I thought it was just me."

Meredith Graham-Bagrie, 23, died on September 23, 2012
Meredith Graham-Bagrie, 23, died on September 23, 2012

The Herald found the youngest to die by suicide connected to the quakes was 15; the eldest 87.

The majority suffered psychological issues before the quakes and some had attempted suicide in the past; but several had never experienced mental health concerns before.

One 58-year-old nurse wrote a suicide note addressed to the coroner saying her sense of "hopelessness" had been amplified by the quakes.

Some individuals were so scared they were sleeping under kitchen tables.

Bob and Joan Cattermole, 82 and 84, died sometime between December 11 and 13, 2010
Bob and Joan Cattermole, 82 and 84, died sometime between December 11 and 13, 2010

Eight were battling the Earthquake Commission (EQC) and insurance providers. Four lived within 1km of one another; stuck inside Kaiapoi's red zone. Two, an elderly brother and sister, died in a murder-suicide pact.

In 2012, Meredith Graham-Bagrie, 23, took her own life. Her mother Gill Graham, a psychiatric nurse, said the ongoing impact of the earthquakes was "the silent killer".

"I think that with the repeated nature of the earthquakes and the aftershocks I just have this image of her never being able to stand up and just having the rug pulled out from under her feet."

Former chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean was in charge of inquests until last year and conceded someone should have connected these deaths before now.

"This has to some extent slipped under the radar because no one has joined the dots," he said, suggesting the strict laws censoring suicide reporting in New Zealand could be blamed for the oversight.

The reasons why a person chooses to take their life are complex and often relate to a number of events experienced over a lifetime, Judge MacLean said.

In light of the Herald findings, Judge MacLean and his successor, Judge Deborah Marshall, both called for further research on the potential correlation between suicides and the quakes.

This investigation comes on the heels of a long-awaited $20 million funding boost for mental health services in Canterbury - which have been hit with unprecedented demand over the past three years.

Despite the suicide rate remaining steady in the quake-hit region - with around 70 people taking their lives every year since 2007, according to provisional data - Christchurch has followed international post-disaster trends with a spike in antisocial behaviour, domestic violence and suicide attempts.

People cared for by Canterbury District Health Board mental health services

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Canterbury Support Line: 0800 777 846
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

The number of people seeking help from Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) specialist mental health services is "a hell of a lot higher" than pre-quake days, with 1000 more patients every month, chief executive David Meates said.

He first sought additional support from the Ministry of Health in early 2013 to cope with the extra pressure - but the funding didn't come through for another three years.

The delay, Mr Meates believed, was because of the ministry's "disconnected view" of what was really happening on the ground in Christchurch.

Clinicians have "gone to hell and back" shifting resources to keep the overburdened system afloat, he said.

"We have been running right at the edges."

In other parts of the world, research shows suicide rates spiked in the wake of natural disasters.

With this trend in mind, suicides in Christchurch should have been monitored, said Professor Alexander McFarlane, director of the University of Adelaide Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies.

"If these [coronial] reports were sent to the Ministry of Health and were not examined; that is a problem," he said.

The Ministry of Health is sent every suicide finding in New Zealand.

Dr John Crawshaw, director of mental health, acknowledged some coronial reports suggested earthquakes were a factor in the death.

However, he said: "It is unhelpful and inaccurate to identify or focus on a single cause as there's often other underlying mental health and wellbeing issues."

The ministry has no intention "at this stage" to launch research on this issue, Dr Crawshaw said.

One of New Zealand's lead suicide researchers, Professor Annette Beautrais, sought funding to study the possible correlation between the quakes and suicide around two years ago.

Every one of her applications was declined.

International experts told the Herald research would allow officials to understand how the aftermath of the quakes contributed to these deaths.

Jamie Skilling, 25, died on April 21, 2011
Jamie Skilling, 25, died on April 21, 2011

It could also lead to changes in post-disaster policies and build stronger connections between recovery agencies and mental health services.

Which is something Donna Moore thinks could have saved her 25-year-old son, Jamie Skilling.

She found his body outside his dark and damaged first home two months after the 2011 quake.

He had scrawled 'sorry mum' across his left hand with a marker pen.

"He was a victim of that disaster," Mrs Moore said quietly, tears staining her shirt.

"I couldn't be mad at him; the ongoing stress of it all was too much for him."

Video

Edward Snook walked inside with his boots on, headed upstairs and locked his bedroom door.

Jamie Skilling knelt on the floor of his broken home and contemplated the imminent end of the world.

Meredith Graham-Bagrie wrote a private Facebook message to one of her friends, asking him to attend her funeral.

These were the final moments of Edward, 33, Jamie, 25, and Meredith, 23.

Edward Snook, 33, died on 26 June, 2014
Edward Snook, 33, died on 26 June, 2014

All three had struggled with quake-related anxiety, fear and stress, according to coronial findings.

Their parents believe the ongoing nature of the quakes played a significant role in their deaths - and possibly even caused them.

"We feel that even with the coroner's report that the truth, the real truth of what caused Edward to take his own life hasn't been addressed," his father, John Snook, said.

For the past five years, and through the death of his son, Mr Snook has worked as a structural engineer dealing with the Christchurch recovery.

A broken building is easier to identify than a broken person.
John Snook

"Whatever the next big disaster is that happens in New Zealand; it might be a flood, it could be a volcano; we don't know, but just as a damaged building needs to be recognised - a damaged emotional system needs to be recognised," he said.

Edward was known as Eddie to his mates.

One of the smartest in his year at high school, Edward graduated from university with honours in electrical engineering, moved to London for a few years and returned to Christchurch in 2009, after being headhunted by a large engineering company.

He had never suffered any mental health issues before the 2011 quake - which hit when he was 30.

"All the photos we have of Edward, he was always smiling," Mr Snook said.

But the son he knew disappeared after that quake.

Edward Snook, 33, travelling in the United States in 2011
Edward Snook, 33, travelling in the United States in 2011

He became obsessed with safety; making disaster kits for his family with radio transmitters and bottled water and was put on probation at work for the first time after speaking out about concerns with the building.

In a counselling session after the quakes, Edward wrote: 'FEAR ABOUT EARTHQUAKE' in capital letters across the middle of the page.

"We all have fears about earthquakes, but it was building up in him. It began to prey on his mind," Mr Snook said.

Edward's mental state continued to spiral downward until he started refusing to eat and even talk.

His family pleaded for help, reaching out to doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists - but Mr Snook said: "No one could work out what was wrong."

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He has his own theories, citing two international post-disaster trauma experts who came to Christchurch and spoke about how people who experience terror can suffer prolonged levels of cortisol - an adrenal hormone released to counter stress.

"They talked about how some people go into instinctive fight or flight mode and that they can remain in these heightened states for years," Mr Snook said.

"To us that falls in line with what happened to Edward."

And, perhaps Meredith Graham-Bagrie.

Doctors investigated whether she was suffering from heightened adrenal response after being earlier diagnosed with earthquake anxiety.

Her mother, psychiatric nurse Gill Graham, noticed "significant changes" in her previously outgoing and confident daughter.

The aspiring make-up artist and former model gained weight, became acned and withdrawn.

Meredith's mum Gill Graham, right, believes it was the stress created by the quakes plus her anxious personality that drove her to the desperate act.
Meredith's mum Gill Graham, right, believes it was the stress created by the quakes plus her anxious personality that drove her to the desperate act.

"She was terribly anxious and her startle reflex was significant. If there was a truck going up the road, the rumbling was enough to make her grab the walls or yell out," Ms Graham said.

"Life became so much harder for her to manage, but she was also conflicted about putting her hand up and saying it's too hard because there are people who have suffered much more than she has."

On September 23, 2012, Meredith's boyfriend found her body at home.

He called Ms Graham, who lived in Auckland at the time. She said he kept repeating the words: "She's gone. She's gone."

"It was the panic in his voice that kind of indicated to me that what he was telling me is she's died."

More than 500 people attended Meredith's funeral; she was "everybody's friend", her mother said.

But living in a broken city stole her ability to lead a normal life.

The broken city also played a part in breaking Jamie Skilling, a sensitive baker who liked to act staunch.

In a suicide note left on the floor of his destroyed house, he wrote about how the world was going to end in 2012.

He said he needed to get to Heaven before they shut the gates.

Jamie Skilling, 25, drew this image on the back of his suicide note and left it on a flag laid on the floor in the lounge of his broken home.
Jamie Skilling, 25, drew this image on the back of his suicide note and left it on a flag laid on the floor in the lounge of his broken home.

His mother, Donna Moore, said Jamie suffered mental health issues for years before the quakes - struggling with the death of his father in 2001, his younger brother's drug abuse and 2010 murder conviction, as well as the recent break-up of his marriage.

He was mentally unstable and living alone when the quake tore his house off its foundations, cut off the power and water, sent sewage spewing out of the plug holes and swamped his street in liquefaction.

A self-confessed "clean freak", Jamie would get on his hands and knees and try to soak up the sewage and silt with towels and sheets.

She found his body with the words 'sorry mum' written on his hand.

I couldn't be mad at him; I just knew he couldn't do it anymore.
Donna Moore

"We were pretty much forgotten because they were dealing with the victims of the earthquake, so anyone who had the misfortune to die in the six to 12 months after that, it was pretty tough for us."

Mrs Moore believes Jamie is a victim of that disaster; albeit a "forgotten" one.

Until now, she said, with hope.

The role the earthquakes played in these deaths isn't limited to fear or stress.

At least eight people who took their own lives were battling with the Earthquake Commission (EQC) over their damaged homes, the Herald investigation found.

In one case, a 47-year-old man was "having a battle with EQC about them not getting his repairs done," the coronial report reads. "He was frustrated and disappointed because it was over two-and-a-half years since the damage occurred. He wanted to sell his house, but could not because it had not been repaired."

In another report, a homeowner was struggling to sleep at night because of stress over EQC.

The Canterbury earthquakes was the biggest disaster the government agency has faced. It has completed 68,000 home repairs in the region and has 1034 yet to do.

EQC, which has shelled out millions of dollars fighting frustrated Cantabrians in court over the past five years, has been criticised for the way it handled customers in numerous independent reports. Critics have included the Chief Ombudsman, the Privacy Commissioner and the Office of the Auditor-General.

The CDHB also acknowledges how EQC and insurance woes have added to mental health pressures by polarising Christchurch between the haves and the have-nots.

Since 2012, EQC has contacted police 71 times after customers threatened to harm themselves.

Eric Marsden, 54, died on October 27, 2011
Eric Marsden, 54, died on October 27, 2011

Eric Marsden, 54, killed himself after living in a broken home for eight months.

Dealing with dozens of different engineers and project managers for EQC and insurance companies was "a constant overwhelming stress", said his brother Mike Marsden.

"It was just an intrusion all the time of strangers coming to your house, poking and prodding and wanting to know this, that and the other."

Every "wobbly" room tilted at nauseating angles, windows wouldn't close, doors wouldn't open and, after sinking 50cm towards the Heathcote River, the property became submerged in half a metre of water when it rained.

After Eric's death, Mike Marsden was left to manage the repair process from Wellington.

Five years on, he's still waiting. "I just want to get rid of that house," he said.

Eric Marsden's damaged home was across the road from the Heathcote River. After the quake, it sunk 50cm and flooded in the rain.
Eric Marsden's damaged home was across the road from the Heathcote River. After the quake, it sunk 50cm and flooded in the rain.

In response to Herald queries about the eight suicide cases, EQC said it has partnered with community groups to support vulnerable customers and changed its policies to ensure those suffering mental health concerns have a single point of contact to streamline the process.

Trish Keith, general manager of customer and claims, said EQC is doing everything it can to get outstanding issues resolved. It was never told about these coronial findings.

Gerry Brownlee, the Minister for Greater Christchurch Regeneration, declined to comment for this story.

Judge Maclean was unaware EQC had been directly named in coronial findings and concedes this probably should have been flagged as an issue when he was chief coroner.

"You would think that if a pattern was starting to emerge of EQC having the finger pointed at them that it's the sort of thing that might have been a good idea to look into."

The earthquakes stole much from many.

They took 185 lives, swallowed entire suburbs and brought a city to its knees.

In their wake, grief crept into Christchurch. Some grieved the dead, some grieved the injured and some, like Bob and Joan Cattermole, simply grieved the loss of their way of life.

The brother and sister, aged 82 and 84, died in a suicide pact three months after the street they had lived on for their entire lives was red-zoned in 2010. Bob killed Joan, then himself.

For the Cattermoles, their home was their castle and they didn't know how to live without it.

They had an elaborate garden, with flowers, vegetables and fruit trees. Their garage was jam-packed with preservatives, bottled peaches, pears and tomatoes.

Video

Joan would always send visiting friends away with a hand-picked bouquet of flowers from her garden. Every Christmas, she made up a hamper with handmade chocolates, jams and fruits for her neighbours.

Michelle McCallister grew up across the road from the Cattermoles and had known them since she was 5. Their home was their "comfort zone", their garden their "pride and joy" and walking to the local grocery store or library the highlight of their day, Ms McCallister said.

"For me, Bob and Joan are part of the history of Kaiapoi," she said.

"After the earthquakes, they became quite withdrawn and stayed inside a lot. When I came to visit they were petrified."

In the days that followed, the Cattermoles went around their broken home shoving plastic bags into the cracks in the bricks and tried to save the remnants of the preservatives in the garage from their smashed jars.

Bob told his doctor his house had suffered extensive damage and he thought they may have to move, according to the coroner's report. "He was not sure how he would cope," the report read. The pair had no significant medical or mental health issues, it added.

Little remains of Bob and Joan's 80 years in Kaiapoi.

Just a lone apple tree on an empty section of an abandoned street.

Bob and Joan Cattermole lived their entire lives on this section of Kaiapoi’s Sewell St. It was red-zoned after the September 2010 quake and is now a deserted swampland.
Bob and Joan Cattermole lived their entire lives on this section of Kaiapoi’s Sewell St. It was red-zoned after the September 2010 quake and is now a deserted swampland.

- NZ Herald

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