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


Every Thursday, in a small classroom at one south Auckland school, mental health professionals and teachers unite to save lives.

They sit around the same table and slowly go through a list of at-risk students, together.

The teachers, counsellors and social workers at Aorere College talk about their students' backgrounds, problems and current moods; the mental health experts listen and provide advice. Those involved say this simple weekly meeting initiative should be rolled out to every secondary school across the country.

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"They advise us on how we should be approaching the situation and which students need to be referred on for professional help," said Tom Brown, Aorere College student services director.

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"It's really useful for us to have this direct contact, because otherwise we are all just working in isolation," Brown said. "This definitely should be rolled out to all schools."

More than 1600 students attend Aorere College, a low-decile school in Papatoetoe. Every week there can be anywhere from 14 to 40 at-risk teens on the list.

Aorere College director of student services Tom Brown. Photo / Mike Scott.
Aorere College director of student services Tom Brown. Photo / Mike Scott.

The New Zealand Herald attended one of these meetings in April. Seventeen students were on the list, a relatively quiet week.

Various issues were raised, including students drinking at school, abuse at home, bullying, internet gaming, drugs, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Some of the comments made at the meeting included:

• "She hasn't cut since before the holidays. Ongoing monitoring and a lot of home issues."

• "She had a plan to take her life."

• "On Monday I had to go to every class with her."

• "He's really low mood at the moment. I think we need to watch him."

• "Cutting has become really quite significant and I haven't been able to get hold of her parents."

Counties Manukau District Health Board clinical director of mental health Dr Peter Watson provided advice to the teachers and counsellors in every case. He has been attending the meetings at Aorere College for the past three years.

"This is a strategy to try and help people at the frontline deal with these situations and recognise when kids are in distress," Watson said.

"This is about the mental health sector supporting the school, who in turn supports the students."

People have often argued that it's difficult to get expert mental health advice in the education sector, "but it's not that hard", Watson said. "Schools just need face-to-face support."

Schools have long had the ability to pick up the phone and ask for advice from health services, but this approach is different because it's proactive and ensures a professional is on-site every week.

"For that hour every week you are part of the team," Watson said. "Schools and communities are all different, but they can learn from one another and we should share what works. Well, this has worked for us.

"This is an exciting new approach to trying to make a real difference."

By this time next year, Watson hopes the weekly meeting initiative will be available in every public high school in south Auckland.

Aorere College Principal Greg Pierce faced the aftermath of a student suicide at a previous school and said when it comes down to dealing with this issue in schools "there is such a fine line between what's right and what's wrong".

Questions always circle, such as: "To what extent do you bring it out in the open and discuss it honestly," said Pierce.

Aorere College Principal Greg Pierce. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Aorere College Principal Greg Pierce. Photo / Dean Purcell.

Principals are in the unenviable position of not wanting to tarnish their school's reputation by speaking out about the issue, but also wanting to be honest about the depth and gravity of it at the same time, he said.

Pierce agreed to speak to the Herald for the Break the Silence special series because, he said, "the bigger picture is more important".

"Every school in the country will be dealing with this to some degree and admitting there is a problem is the first step. This is the future of our country.

"What we've been doing isn't making enough of a difference and it's almost like we're gambling on what's best. But we're gambling with the possibility of someone's life.

"Time to try something new."

• Support the Mental Health Foundation by texting 'Break the Silence' to 2446 to make an automatic $3 donation.
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.