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, "butt-covering". 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.
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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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.
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 (Mon-Fri 1pm to 10pm. Sat-Sun 3pm-10pm)
• 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.