From farm girl to high-flyer: The real Sarah Higgins

By Carolyne Meng-Yee

Today is International Suicide Awareness Day. Sarah Higgins' stepmother spoke with Carolyne Meng-Yee about her daughter's complex illness to encourage others to reach out.
Sarah Higgins grew up on a farm in Northland before moving in political circles. Photo / Facebook
Sarah Higgins grew up on a farm in Northland before moving in political circles. Photo / Facebook

On the face of it, Sarah Higgins had it all.

Young, beautiful and talented, the budding politician's Facebook page told of an enviable life - selfies with the Prime Minister, dining at swanky restaurants and connections with "friends" in high places.

But behind the smiles, poses and upbeat posts, Sarah was battling depression.
She died on August 28 of a suspected suicide.

Tomorrow is International Suicide Awareness Day and Sarah's stepmother, Donna Higgins, is speaking for the first time about her daughter's complex illness to encourage others to reach out.

"It's not an excuse to do nothing. Get help and don't let [depression] hold you back," she said from her home in Pawarenga, an isolated west coast community about 40 minutes south of Kaitaia.

"Sarah's death wasn't sudden or unexpected - she died in respite care," Higgins said tearfully. "It was a manic time, she felt she was a burden and couldn't go on."

Sarah grew up with her two brothers, James and Harry, in Umawera, a small rural town in Northland about an hour east from her parents' current home.

Their birth mother, Helen, died six years ago from complications following surgery.

After she became too ill to care for them, the children were raised by their father, Chris, a local dairy farmer.

Donna met Chris after her marriage ended.

Chris Higgins and Donna Higgins. Photo / Supplied.
Chris Higgins and Donna Higgins. Photo / Supplied.

She and her son Andre moved in with her brother, Chris' next-door neighbour. The pair struck up a friendship then married, raising their four children together.

Sarah, who was "always loyal and thoughtful" was a tomboy," she said.

"Nothing made her happier than working with her dad on the farm."

She drove the tractor, milked the cows and ploughed the fields.

"Chris described Sarah as the best son he ever had," said Donna laughing.

Sarah's troubles began early in life when she was diagnosed with ADHD, Asperger's syndrome, dyslexia and its numerical equivalent dyscalculia.

Depression followed when she turned 14. Sarah loved school but struggled to keep up.

"She was great verbally, but she couldn't physically write things down which frustrated her and added to her depression," said Donna.

After Sarah left school with NCEA Level 1, she worked on the farm and trained to be a chef. Five years ago she moved to Pukekohe, started working in a cake shop and got involved in local politics to make a difference.

"[Chris says] his daughter had a great work ethic and was passionate about issues," said Donna.

"Sarah's main ambition was to become influential so she could change the education system. She wanted to help children, like herself, her father and her brothers with dyslexia - she didn't want sufferers to feel 'dumb' because they aren't.

"Nobody understood what Sarah's pain was. We saw it."

Sarah Higgins. Photo / Supplied.
Sarah Higgins. Photo / Supplied.
Sarah Higgins, local board member and Young Nat, with Prime Minister John. Photo / Supplied.
Sarah Higgins, local board member and Young Nat, with Prime Minister John. Photo / Supplied.

Aged 22, Sarah was the youngest person to win a seat on Auckland Council's Franklin Local Board.

She started her political career at the same time as Joseph Bergin, chairman of the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board.

Bergin described Sarah as "a breath of fresh air with a great social conscience".

"She was really ambitious and wanted to achieve outcomes for her community, but I think she had an increasing frustration with the political process."

As Sarah's public profile increased her ability to cope went the opposite way. Donna could see her daughter unravelling under the pressure.

"We would have preferred it if she worked less. She wanted to live the high life and that was the issue. We had no interest in those flashy things, that wasn't her and it didn't impress us - we just wanted her."

Donna said Sarah tried hard to deal with her depression. When things got "too much", Sarah would return to the family farm.

Sarah Higgins grew up on a farm in Northland before moving in political circles. Photo / Supplied.
Sarah Higgins grew up on a farm in Northland before moving in political circles. Photo / Supplied.

"She'd cuddle up on the couch and we would watch a few movies. I would cook her a roast with lots of gravy, Sarah's favourite dish - then she'd come right again."

Nikalias Munro, Sarah's half-brother said when her birth mother died Sarah "fell apart".

Things started to improve when she started working at Barfoot & Thompson's Papakura office.

The rookie real estate agent showed great promise. It was there, she met and later moved in with a colleague.

The pair broke up four months ago. Donna said Sarah's relationships never lasted.

"She felt she was never loved - it didn't matter what people said to her, she felt she was better off alone. We would say why don't you choose someone like us, why do they have to be high flying types?"

As Sarah's health deteriorated, she became increasingly isolated from her family.

"We didn't see a lot of Sarah. Because she was a high achiever, the thought of her not being able to continue was too much for her. But she didn't want to be reminded of it when she saw us."

Sarah was farewelled last week at Motukaraka Pt on the Hokianga. The service was simple and heartfelt, without politicians or "anybody of note".

Her death has been referred to the Coroners Court.

"Losing Sarah is heart-breaking, but we feel strongly she is with her mother now," said Donna.

"What they couldn't achieve in life they can have now."

Sarah Higgins casket being carried in Motukaraka Church on the Hokianga Harbour. Photo / Kristin Edge.
Sarah Higgins casket being carried in Motukaraka Church on the Hokianga Harbour. Photo / Kristin Edge.
Mourners inside the historic Motukaraka Church on the Hokianga Harbour during the funeral of Sarah Higgins. Photo / Kristin Edge.
Mourners inside the historic Motukaraka Church on the Hokianga Harbour during the funeral of Sarah Higgins. Photo / Kristin Edge.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
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)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- NZ Herald

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