After a spate of youth suicides struck the Far North township of Kaitaia earlier this year, an unlikely hero emerged from the tragedy.

It wasn't a teacher, celebrity, health professional or politician.

It was 18-year-old Nina Griffiths.

While grieving for six young people who had taken their own lives in close succession, including two of her close friends, Griffiths led her town on a crusade against suicide.


She organised community meetings, launched a youth-led suicide awareness programme and won $10,000 in funding for suicide prevention.

READ MORE: Herald New Zealander of the Year: Leisa Renwick

But most importantly, Griffiths challenged the tight-knit community of Kaitaia to bring the taboo issue of youth suicide - which had plagued the Far North for years - out from the shadows and into the light.

For that, she has won The Hits People's Choice Award for 2016.

More than 4000 Herald readers and Hits listeners voted, selecting Griffiths from a lineup that included Paralympic gold medallist Liam Malone, Hunt for the Wilderpeople child star Julian Dennison and Chloe Swarbrick, the 22-year-old Auckland mayoralty contestant.

When the Weekend Herald told Griffiths, who is chair of the Far North Youth Council, that she had won the award, she replied: "Wow. I have tears in my eyes.

"I can't believe that this many people think youth suicide is a cause worth supporting. I don't see this as a win for me; I see it as a win for the cause."

Griffiths' level-headedness, empathy and worldly nature was fostered in her early years growing up on a permaculture orchard in Kaitaia where travellers would come and work in exchange for board and food.


Her first taste of counselling friends through dark times came at Pamapuria Primary School.

The small school on State Highway 1 in Kaitaia hit the headlines in 2013 when deputy principal James Parker was convicted of sexually abusing young boys.

Some of Parker's victims were friends of Griffiths', who disclosed to her that they were thinking about taking their own lives.

"I was about 12 or 13 and I didn't quite know how to deal with it. It was absolutely terrifying," she said.

"That's when I first realised how inaccessible professional support was," Griffiths told the Weekend Herald.

Nina Griffiths, 18, won The Hits People's Choice Award for New Zealander of the Year for her campaign against suicide following the deaths of five young people in the Far North town earlier this year.
Nina Griffiths, 18, won The Hits People's Choice Award for New Zealander of the Year for her campaign against suicide following the deaths of five young people in the Far North town earlier this year.

When her friends sought help from counsellors, Griffiths said they couldn't relate to the professionals who often asked generic questions from behind clipboards in unfamiliar rooms.


In the end, she realised her friends only needed someone to talk to who they could relate to and who would listen.

At Kaitaia College, Griffiths joined the Ngati Hine Health Trust Responding to All In Distress (Raid) movement, which focused on suicide prevention and awareness for youth.

Raid was made up of about 10 young people who travelled to schools in the Far North to lead anti-bullying campaigns.

One of her close friends, Rapata Pepene-Norman, was also part of Raid.

On May 28, Pepene-Norman took his own life. He was only 18.

In the three months after his death, another five people under the age of 25 died by suicide in Kaitaia.


"The thing about such a small community is everyone was connected. They all either knew someone or lived near someone who had died," Griffiths said.

The circumstances of how Pepene-Norman and the others had died were never discussed with the Kaitaia College students through fear of copycat suicides, Griffiths said.

"We as students knew what had happened, we knew how it had happened and it made us feel like it wasn't important because nobody was talking about it or what we needed to change to ensure it didn't happen again," Griffiths said.

'What I've felt about this whole situation is that if you can do something, why don't you?'

She recalled how a few years earlier comedian Mike King had visited the school and talked about depression. She asked him to come back up to Kaitaia and speak about suicide and ways to prevent it.

King quickly jumped on board and Griffiths invited the community to his talk through social media and local health organisations. More than 100 people turned up to the event in June, which Griffiths said "completely blew my mind".

King presented the taboo topic of suicide in a different light, which Griffiths said was empowering to those who had recently lost friends or family members.


He talked about finding a way to combat the issue rather than silencing it.

Griffiths arranged a second community meeting to brainstorm solutions and the group agreed youth needed ways of expressing themselves such as music, dance and art - and to have ownership of a safe social space to hang out in.

In October, Griffiths won a $10,000 AMP scholarship to create a hub for youth in Kaitaia.

"What I've felt about this whole situation is that if you can do something, why don't you? There are so many people who aren't doing anything and if you can do something, you should do it," she said.

Next year, she is moving to Wellington to study political science and cultural anthropology at Victoria University.

"I'm studying those topics because people really interest me and I've learnt a lot about people this year," she said.


"This has been the craziest year of my life. It's really taught me a lot about the strength of people and how easy it is to make a positive difference."

The other People's Choice finalists were: Andrew Judd, Chloe Swarbrick, Julian Dennison, Leisa Renwick, Liam Malone, Major and Jason Timms, Mark Longley, Peter Beck, and Senior Constable Ross Andrew and Constable Simon Ashton.
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.