A father's journey, in his own words: Graham Skellern

We wake to a clear, crisp June morning in the Far North, pack our bags and stack the mattresses at the Potahi Marae one last time.

Among the families, there is an air of expectation and trepidation.

We are heading into the last leg of our journey – making the bus trip from Te Kao to Te Rerenga Wairua [Cape Reinga] and bidding farewell to our loved ones.


Over the past week the five families talked and talked about suicide and the fall-out.

"What a mess they leave behind," is how one of the family members described it.

We sat on the floor of the wharenui at marae in Whanganui, Rotorua and Whangārei late into the night and told our stories.

We conversed in the bus on our hīkoi north, getting to know each other better and growing stronger as every kilometre went by.

We started the journey of discovery and resolution as strangers. We have one big thing in common – our loved ones had committed suicide, three sons, a mother and a niece.

When we board the bus at Te Kao we are one big family, all 25 of us – content and relaxed in our own company.

As the bus winds its way to the cape, a helicopter hovers overhead while the film crew take wide shots for the movie.

The noise of the helicopter adds to our expectation.


We arrive at the carpark to be greeted by the Ngāti Kura kaumātua, Pineaha Murray.

"This is a wonderful thing you are doing today, bringing your loved ones
here, and I was told to take you to the lighthouse," he says.

"In my time I have never done a welcome at the lighthouse – I usually do this in the carpark – and it's a privilege for me because of the love you have shown. If you are at one with the spirit, then everything else is easy."

We walk slowly and in a tight bunch down the path to the lighthouse, to the stirring sound of the karanga [calling out].

In the front of the group, family members carry framed photographs of their loved ones.

It's a powerful feeling – one whānau, not five. The feeling is strong enough to overcome all odds.

We started the hīkoi with pain and sadness. We have forgiven, and we have gained knowledge and understanding.

We are at the place where we can let our loved ones go – yet continue to love them and walk with them in spirit forever.

We walk to the highest peak of Te Rerenga Wairua overlooking the lighthouse.

The clouds gather and darken.

One by one each family member kisses and places the photograph of their loved one on the whāriki [flax mat].

The raw silence and emotion is broken by a nerve-tingling haka from the Whanganui family members.

It sends shivers through my body.

We feel the spirits of our loved ones fly free.

Hepa Morehu, Matthew Skellern, Amiria Reweti-Kareama, Tina Poa and Adrian Albert died alone in a dark space but their spirits light up the gray Cape Reinga sky as they fly together over the 800-year pōhutukawa tree, out to the Three Kings Islands and onwards.

My daughter Emma had carried with her some kauri leaves from Matt's tree in Tauranga.

She throws them – and in the wind they swiftly spiral upwards as if following the path of her brother.

Graham Skellern holds a photo of his son Matt who killed himself and is now advocating for better support. Photo/file
Graham Skellern holds a photo of his son Matt who killed himself and is now advocating for better support. Photo/file

- Graeme Skellern


Family's personal tragedy becomes voice of hope for others


It's an issue that Tauranga man Graham Skellern says is often described as "taboo".

But a recently released New Zealand docu-drama that will be shown in Tauranga this month aims to challenge that idea.

Graham Skellern, his wife Philippa and their daughter Emma feature in the movie alongside four other Kiwi families.

Each comes from different walks of life and live in different parts of the North Island, but they all share a common story.

Every family has lost a loved one to suicide.

Graham, Emma and Phillipa Skellern at Matt's funeral. Photo/supplied
Graham, Emma and Phillipa Skellern at Matt's funeral. Photo/supplied

The Skellerns lost their son and brother Matthew in 2012 after his struggle with bipolar.

The film, Mauī's Hook, was released as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival with the world premiere held in Auckland on July 21.

The storyline follows a physical and spiritual journey of the families as they share their struggles and experiences on a hikoi to Cape Reinga.

A new family joins at each location of Taranaki, Whanganui, Rotorua and Whangārei as they make their way north, areas in New Zealand that are the most affected by suicide. An element of drama is entwined throughout the film through the struggles of the main character, Tama.

The idea to be a part of the film came about over three years ago for the Tauranga family when Emma Skellern, a researcher with a Masters of Psychology degree, made contact with the film's director, Paora Joseph.

"Our whole approach was to share our family experience in the hope that it will create new solutions to address suicide," Graham says.

He describes the film as an "incredible experience".

The group travelled together for eight days staying at various marae along the way, the physical journey mapping out the shape of a hook, one interpretation of the film's title.

Wānanga [workshop] sessions were offered to the families by Māori psychologist and director Paora Joseph each step of the journey.

Matt Skellern, as he was remembered at his funeral. Image/supplied
Matt Skellern, as he was remembered at his funeral. Image/supplied

Graham says strong connections were made with the families, connections that would last a lifetime.

"By the end of the trip we were all just at one," he says.

The Skellerns joined the hīkoi in Rotorua and every family carried a photo of their loved one along the journey.

The most powerful part of the hīkoi was reaching Cape Reinga and going up to the peak, Graham says.

Te Rerenga Wairua [Cape Reinga] is where Māori believe the spirits of the dead depart New Zealand.

"We placed them [the photographs] down at the top of Cape Reinga to release the spirits and to give a final farewell.

"That was a big powerful moment," he says.

The process helped each family with their personal healing and grief, Graham says.

He says the film crew were amazing and they were not intrusive and rarely were the families told to add to the dramatic storyline.

Graham was "absolutely intrigued" to see how the film would be put together. After seeing the film in Auckland in July he says the families shine in the movie.

"There's no doubt about that.

"Everyone is so open about what they experienced and in talking about it. When I saw it on the big screen I just thought 'wow'."

Graham says seeing the film was emotional and powerful.

"We just knew that the message was getting out and this will work," he says.

Suicide is something Graham regards as an "epidemic sweeping through New Zealand".

Graham says in hindsight, his family realised they did not have the support they needed to really understand the situation with Mathew's mental health.

"We didn't have the proper toolkit, like how to open up the conversation," he says.

But after Matthew died, Graham says it was never difficult to talk about his death.

"It was the opposite, we even talked about it at Matt's funeral. Part of the healing process has been talking about it and sharing the experience with other families in the movie was a great exercise."

After creating the Matt Skellern Bipolar Trust and the experience of being involved with the film, the family feel in a position to help other people.

"It's six years now and what comes out in the movie is a real conversation about suicide," he says.

"The movie was one element and forming the Matt Skellern Bipolar Trust was always our approach to really get the message out there and to get the conversation going."

Graham says he and his family are taking the counter view of suicide being a taboo subject and that you are not supposed to talk about it.

"But you have to talk about it and through talking about it, you come across different experiences. By understanding it a bit more you may be able to help some else," he says.

Since forming the trust in 2013, the Skellerns have had many people contact them to share their story.

"For some families, it was the first time they had talked about their experience with suicide. Getting things off your chest is actually not a bad thing sometimes," he says.

Since the film premiered it has been well received with sell-out viewings in Auckland and Wellington and has been described as a must watch for all New Zealanders.

Graham says this is because the suicide rate in New Zealand is "so terribly high and so many people are impacted by suicide".

"It's just not the person that takes their life, it's the family, friends," he says.

The film highlights the tragedy which is the high rate of suicide in New Zealand.

"Here are five families absolutely talking about it. Through the talking, we may be able to find some solutions."

Paora Joseph says he wanted to make this film because youth suicide is an issue that has long been of concern to him.

He worked with at-risk youth in South Auckland and his Auckland University thesis was on Māori youth suicide - attitudes before European colonisation compared with today.

"That was in 1997 and sniffing glue was the prominent risk factor amongst young people – now it's methamphetamine.

He says New Zealand had a high suicide rate back then, and it hasn't changed.

"If anything, it's got worse. Nowadays, we have the highest suicide rate in the world between the ages of 15 and 24."

Especially amongst Māori.

"But this film isn't just about Māori, it's about everybody," he says.

The film uses a Māori pathway to healing and connecting with each other in order to come to terms with this global problem of suicide, Paora says.

Elements of that Māori pathway include the concept of a hīkoi wairua, a spiritual journey in which families undertake kawe mate [carrying a picture or emblem of the dead person] to the departing place of the spirits.

"All along the way they are talking, sharing experiences, thoughts and pain, seeking to repair the connection between the living and the dead which was broken by the traumatic act of suicide."

Paora says indigenous cultures are quite fortunate in that they have ancient practices that help people deal with suffering and emotional pain.

Graham, Emma and Phillipa Skellern at one of the marae they visited as part of Maui's Hook. Photo/supplied
Graham, Emma and Phillipa Skellern at one of the marae they visited as part of Maui's Hook. Photo/supplied

"It's important to share that journey with the rest of the world because we want to say 'Hey look, there is a way through this', and these whānau in the film are leading the way.

"They're showing us a way to deal with this grief," he says.

Although the participating families say in the film that they don't have the answers, Paora disagrees.

He says they will help others who see the film simply by revealing their hurt and making suicide a subject that is safe to talk about.

"Our whānau are very humble in saying that they're not providing an answer. They absolutely are providing an answer. One of the beautiful things about this film is that what they're conveying to other people is coming from a place of purity. It's coming from their own experience. It's from their hearts. That's what makes the difference. When people speak from the heart they can bring about tremendous transformation in the world."

More meaningful and effective services
Through the Matt Skellern Bipolar Trust, the Skellern family made a submission to the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction.

Here's some of our suggestions for improving and plugging the gaps in the mental health system:
• Design services to really enable Personalised Care. An Individualised Funding model that has been successful in Britain will create user-driven demand, rather than a centralised approach where institutions choose what services are offered.
• The Te Whare Tapa Wha framework, developed by Māori psychiatrist Sir Mason Durie, provides an excellent whole view of health and wellbeing that could be put at the heart of service delivery. People are encouraged to attend to four Pou (pillars) to ensure the stability of their Whare (health and wellbeing) - their physical, mental and spiritual health, as well as the quality of their relationships (family health).
• Technology can enable users to easily access the different service types, based on personalised wellness plans and toolkits which recognise the whole person.
• Drop mental health labels that separate and isolate people and reframe the language to address the stigma and discrimination in our society.
• Increase peer support network and trauma counselling.
• The current system relies too heavily on medication as the main support option. Create more choice. Engaging both allied and non-allied health work forces to offer increased diversity in service provision is important.
• Friends and family are always the front-line support for people experiencing mental health and addiction issues, therefore we need to equip them with the education and support (a toolkit) to offer good quality care.
• Community members need to know what service options are available and how to link to these.
• Focus on providing positive education for young people, to build their resilience and develop their emotional management skills.
• Change policy so people who are admitted to in-patient units against their will are not served a legal record. Abolish the current Mental Health Act and replace it with a set of care principles and more humane policies created to support people to heal.
• Create more positive healthy places (retreats) for people to rest, heal and re-discover their sense of hope for life.

We believe it's going to take a deep change at the society and community level to create environments where young people who are struggling can see a pathway towards living a happy life.

We need to acknowledge the hero journey people go through to return from mental health issues (anxiety, depression, bipolar) and addiction, and to harness the learning they bring back that can assist us to improve society's understanding and functioning.

Māui's Hook
The film will be shown in Tauranga on August 26 and 28 for more information visit- www.nziff.co.nz/2018/tauranga/mauis-hook/

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 police immediately on 111.
Or if you need to talk to someone else:
• 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