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

Meet Hailey and Milly. Hailey is brunette; Milly is blonde.

They are teenage girls from loving homes who like to bake cookies, stick photos on their bedroom walls and write in diaries.

But these teenage girls have wanted - and tried - to die.

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"People will see a beautiful, smiley girl, but what they don't see is the pain behind her eyes," says Milly's mother, Lorraine.

Milly, 15, has lines of angry red scars marching down the length of her left arm. Hailey, 16, once cut herself so deep she nicked an artery and needed 28 stitches.

"People look at me and tell me straight up to my face 'you look happy and you seem like a normal person'," Milly says. "But there are darknesses and distances inside me that no one can handle."

Milly, 15, draws a self-portrait in her journal and writes about feeling 'invisible'. Photo / Mike Scott
Milly, 15, draws a self-portrait in her journal and writes about feeling 'invisible'. Photo / Mike Scott

Earlier this year, Hailey wrote in her journal: "16-year-old girls shouldn't be stuck in a psych ward battling their minds every single day. I should be living my life, falling in love etc, but no. I'm stuck in this cycle of trying to end my life. Will I ever be normal?"

READ MORE:
Read the full Break The Silence series
Investigation: The untold story teen suicide in the North
New Zealand's self-harm epidemic

Hailey and Milly met in a psychiatric ward at Auckland's Starship Hospital in February this year.

Neither girl remembers the exact date, but they are fairly confident Hailey was sitting on the couch in the lounge and that Milly walked in, smiled and asked if she wanted to do some baking.

In some places, niceties aren't necessary. The girls shared deep, dark secrets before they even knew each other's surnames. They talked about being afraid to live and afraid to die all at the same time.

They made each other feel less alone.

While in hospital, they wrote cards to one another, inspiring the other to keep fighting to live. The letters are now pinned up on their bedroom walls.

"Nobody can save you but yourself - and you are worth saving," Hailey wrote to Milly. "It's not a war easily won, but if anything is worth winning ... this is it!"

Hailey wrote an inspirational note to Milly, encouraging her to live. Photo / Mike Scott.
Hailey wrote an inspirational note to Milly, encouraging her to live. Photo / Mike Scott.

Hailey and Milly are the final story in the planned phase of the New Zealand Herald's Break the Silence series on youth suicide.

For the past six weeks we have published more than 65 stories about how we have the highest teen suicide rate in the developed world and why we've been told not to talk about it for so long.

The series has made international headlines and ignited a national conversation, with the Health Minister, Education Minister and Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser acknowledging we, as a nation, haven't done enough.

But the deaths didn't stop when these conversations started. Two 12-year-old children and at least one high school teenager have all died by suspected suicide in the six weeks since the series started.

Hailey and Milly know more about suicide than most because they've come so close - too close - to death themselves.

They have attempted to kill themselves a combined 15 times. Some attempts didn't require hospital admission, others needed emergency treatment followed by month-long stays in psychiatric units.

They are not proud of their struggles, but neither are ashamed of their journey.

In the past few months, Hailey has stopped longing for death and is now planning for her future. She hopes one day to be a nurse to help young people like herself.

"It's really nice to feel like I have all this time ahead of me now. I believe there is a reason why people go through horrible things like this and I believe the reason why I have to go through this is to help other people that may be on the same journey," she says.

This week we have been focusing on potential strategies to reduce New Zealand's teen suicide rate and, arguably, the one cited by more experts than any other was: "Listen to our youth."

Milly uses her journal to express her inner thoughts. Photo / Mike Scott
Milly uses her journal to express her inner thoughts. Photo / Mike Scott

Despite their histories, we believe Hailey and Milly deserve a voice in this conversation. They want to help break the silence. And they want you to set aside your judgments or any predispositions you may have to believe you know what's best for them.

They ask you to listen.

Hailey and Milly, with the backing of their parents and professional support networks, opened up their lives to us. They shared their insecurities, their weaknesses and their fears with raw, uncomfortable and courageous honesty.

They are our final story of hope.

Having the chance to talk about what they've been through - with the possibility that it might reach some other young person walking the same dark path - has given the girls a purpose and a will to live, their mothers say.

Anita and Lorraine have been fighting the battle for their daughters' lives for years now.
It's been an ugly, angry fight.

They've slept on the floor pressed up against their daughters' bedroom doors to lock them inside.

They've called the police to cart them away during uncontrollable fits of anger, when lights have been smashed and holes kicked in walls.

They've called ambulances after suicide attempts. They've sobbed on the kitchen floor surrounded by food their starving daughters have refused to eat.

They've quit work, lost friends, struggled to hold their marriages together and apologised to their younger children, who they fear they've neglected along the way.

They've been screamed at, kicked, punched and scratched, but they've refused to walk away.

Milly has suffered from an eating disorder that has been so severe she has wound up hospitalised. Photo / Mike Scott
Milly has suffered from an eating disorder that has been so severe she has wound up hospitalised. Photo / Mike Scott

"That's the bonds of unconditional love from a parent to a child that no matter what she's going through, or how frightened or angry or hurt I get walking alongside her in this journey, I'm always still going to be there; right beside her," says Anita, Hailey's mum.

Trying to keep your suicidal child alive strips you of everything but fear, the mothers say.

"There are nights when you hop into bed and wonder whether you're going to find your child alive or dead in the morning," says Milly's mum, Lorraine. "It's hard to describe the constantness of fear and anxiety around not knowing whether your child is going to live.

"As a mum there have been so many times I've wanted to hide in a hole and actually hope it all goes away. There have been lots of times where I've felt like I can't do it anymore and then I feel really stink and guilty because it's my girl that's going through hell and I'm just the mum."

Lorraine, Milly's mother, spoke about the overwhelming sense of fear you feel as a mother with a suicidal daughter. Watch the full video above. Photo / Mike Scott.
Lorraine, Milly's mother, spoke about the overwhelming sense of fear you feel as a mother with a suicidal daughter. Watch the full video above. Photo / Mike Scott.

When Hailey and Milly became friends, Anita and Lorraine became confidants.

On the bad days - the days when they've wanted to give up - they've helped each other through. "The only way I could've been that support to Lorraine is having gone through the fire myself. I knew how much it hurt and I knew how much it just ripped at your soul," Anita says.

Her daughter, Hailey, has attempted to end her life eight times now. In the most serious incident, the police found her unconscious in the bushes of a nearby park after she posted a goodbye message to her friends on social media.

Realising her child didn't want to live anymore left Anita with an "all-encompassing feeling of sadness".

"You just want to carry the burden for them. You want to take it away and do anything that you can to make it right."

Hailey uses a scrapbook to explain how and what she's feeling. Photo / Mike Scott
Hailey uses a scrapbook to explain how and what she's feeling. Photo / Mike Scott

For Hailey, the darkness started creeping in at high school. She didn't have friends and she felt like she didn't fit in.

Some days she struggled to get out of bed, to shower or even eat. "I felt like I'd hit rock bottom and every day I'd wake up and rock bottom would have a basement," she says.

The Herald first met Hailey in April, while she was still an inpatient at Starship Hospital. She wanted to be part of the Break the Silence series back then, but we were concerned our involvement in her life could set her back in her recovery. When Hailey was discharged and felt stronger and safer, we met her again and again.

Next year she plans on speaking in schools across the country about her battle with depression, alongside suicide campaigner Mike King. On Wednesday night, she spoke for 45 minutes in front of her own high school peers and their parents for the first time and King told the Herald she was "phenomenal".

Anita, Hailey's mother, says she felt an all encompassing sadness when she realised her daughter
Anita, Hailey's mother, says she felt an all encompassing sadness when she realised her daughter "didn't want to live anymore". Watch the full video above. Photo / Mike Scott.

For Hailey's mother, this signifies a light at the end of what has been a very long road. "I'm looking forward to the day where the things that we've experienced we can use to support other people and mentor them to get through dark times; that we can pay it forward," Anita says.

"It is a long road and we're still on it, but at least we're now headed in the right direction."

Back in May, Hailey said in an interview: "I'm only 16 years old and I could say I know the inside of a psychiatric ward like I know the back of my hand. I've had six inpatient admissions to a mental health unit, but I can't count the amount of times I've been to the emergency department or medical ward for suicide attempts or self-harm.

"I felt like I was by myself and that no one understood and no one ever felt like this."

Hailey is now looking forward to the future for the first time in a long time. Photo / Mike Scott
Hailey is now looking forward to the future for the first time in a long time. Photo / Mike Scott

That was until she found Milly.

"At the start of my journey I didn't know anyone with mental health problems and I felt so alone," Milly says. "I'd see groups of girls walking down the street laughing and happy and I'd think that's what I'm supposed to be like, but I can't. Meeting Hailey made me feel less alone."

Milly never wanted anyone to know she was suicidal and she hid her self-harm scars.

"I didn't want anyone to see me differently. I never wanted anyone to know what I was truly feeling. I wanted to be seen as Milly. I didn't want to be seen as the mentally ill girl. I wanted just to be normal," she says.

Looking back now, her mother realises she may have missed the warning signs she was losing her daughter to mental illness, like how one day she just started listening to dark music, stopped wearing her beloved multi-coloured stripy tights and wanted to dye her blonde hair black.

Maybe Lorraine was too busy with daily life, maybe the advice she read in teenage parenting books was wrong, she's not exactly sure.

But by the time she started high school, Milly didn't feel like she fitted in at all. She didn't like taking selfies with the other girls at lunch time and instead would walk around school alone with headphones on so people didn't try and talk to her.

"I'd never be listening to music, but I just wanted to avoid a conversation. I wanted to slip under the radar and for no one to notice me."

Milly, who suffers from such extreme social anxiety she often struggles to pay at shop counters, plans to speak at her former high school about the depth of her struggles with mental illness soon.

Milly often writes about how she's feeling and then paints over her words to cover them up again. Photo / Mike Scott
Milly often writes about how she's feeling and then paints over her words to cover them up again. Photo / Mike Scott

"You know that old cliche - and I would've punched someone's lights out if they said it to me six months ago - that 'everything happens for a reason', well I think maybe this happened to us for a reason," Lorraine says.

"Because I feel quite strongly about helping other people. I feel like I can do that and I know that Milly does and if it can change something for just one person then that's one person who has not gone down a big black hole of darkness."

The stigma and shame associated with mental illness and suicide in New Zealand is a heavy burden that tears a family "to its very bare bones", Lorraine says.

"In Ronald McDonald House you look around the room and see these people with children with shaved heads and nasogastric tubes and you think 'oh those poor parents and that poor family' and yet actually that's us, but nobody sees it like that because their illness isn't tested by a blood test or isn't palpably visible," she says.

"You don't choose to get leukaemia and you don't choose to suffer from depression. People need to understand there is no choice," she says.

Milly, 15, soon hopes to talk in schools about her battle with mental illness. Photo / Mike Scott
Milly, 15, soon hopes to talk in schools about her battle with mental illness. Photo / Mike Scott

Milly likes to paint, draw and write her frustration out in scrapbooks. Some of the pages are a black mess of ink, others are beautiful, insightful and hopeful.

On one page, she wrote: "I am building in a post-war city."

In early June, while sitting on her bed at home, Milly described why she wrote that; how she feels "completely desecrated, destroyed and torn down" - like a post-war city - but that as part of her recovery she is slowly learning how to rebuild.

"To rebuild myself to create something beautiful and make it worthwhile so it's not just fires and broken buildings, but it's meadows and thoughts and nice things."

She turned to the next page of her journal and read: "Something inside me needs to click and hopefully it will. I've been waiting awhile and have lost hope along the way. My body is broken and my feet are sore, but to keep trying is what I have to do.

"And I will," she said, looking up with a smile.

Hailey is using her journey to try and help others who might be walking a similar dark path. Photo / Mike Scott
Hailey is using her journey to try and help others who might be walking a similar dark path. Photo / Mike Scott

HAILEY'S 10 THINGS PEOPLE DID THAT DIDN'T HELP HER WHEN SHE WAS IN CRISIS - AND THE 10 THINGS THAT WOULD HAVE HELPED.

Ten things that didn't help:

1. Being told to "think positively".
2. Being told "it's all in your head".
3. Being told "other people have it worse than you".
4. Being told "you have nothing to worry about".
5. Being told to "just be happy".
6. Being told that "only weirdos like to hurt themselves".
7. Being told "you're just attention seeking".
8. People minimising my struggles.
9. People making the problem about them.
10. Being told "this is your choice".

Ten things people could have done to help:

1. Validate my feelings.
2. Just listen.
3. Reassure me that you won't leave me.
4. Know that sometimes all I need is a hug.
5. Sit with me until some of the shittiness passes.
6. Remind me that it will pass and I will be okay.
7. Try to do things together as a distraction.
8. Offer me support to help find additional help.
9. Ask if I'm okay and keep asking until I say something other than fine.
10. Please remind me that you enjoy my presence and love me, it's that simple.

• The families of Hailey and Milly would like to thank their friends and family who have supported them through the dark times, staff at Ronald McDonald House, suicide campaigner Mike King, Family Link charitable trust manager Brian Thomas, Corinda Taylor of the Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust and Tracy Lee from The Ugly Shoes Club.

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.