In the dark days after her son took his own life, Thelma French read of a successful American suicide prevention programme. Here, she tells CARROLL DU CHATEAU, was a glimmer of hope ...
Thelma French knows about the pain she is trying to prevent so thoroughly the tears still sit behind her hazel eyes much of the time. Tall, attractive, super-efficient, warm and wonderful with people, French holds down a big job in human resources. In her spare time she is a JP and marriage celebrant
But behind the professional exterior the pain still sits there. The death of her son Aaron has torn the protective coating off her heart. "I never want to see other people go through the pain we've had," she says.
Typically, French did something about it. Her answer: to introduce the Yellow Ribbon youth suicide prevention project to New Zealand. Already the United States-based initiative, which works through schools and the community, claims to have prevented 1500 deaths.
And for French, saving even one shining star like Aaron, who died three years ago, has made the arduous task of getting Yellow Ribbon established in New Zealand worthwhile.
In 1997 French was holding her small family together and, she thought, managing reasonably well. Certainly her marriage had fallen apart, her job was demanding, Aaron was smoking dope, having problems with his job. But basically they were coping. Aaron was a sensitive young man with the "neatest personality." Says his mother, "I absolutely adored him. He had the most lovely, really thoughtful nature."
In the evenings she'd lie in bed in their Howick home and talk to Aaron through the wall. He was 17. A question that he asked her just days before he died, still teases her mind: "Mum, what's heaven like?"
"He said he was bored and I responded, 'How can you possibly be bored with everything you have?"'
What French didn't realise was that four days before, Aaron had been sacked from his job as a courier driver. His self-esteem had plummeted. He had had 32 warnings from his boss over three months. Says his mother, "With the marijuana he just didn't remember to pick up and drop off parcels. It had started to affect his short-term memory. He'd be sitting on the couch talking and he'd just drop off to sleep."
Looking back, there were more clues. "On Tuesday he asked me to take him to Colville where my Dad was born. It was our special place. I said that I couldn't - I had to go to work, we'd go there over the next few weekends."
Days before, again without telling his mother, Aaron had given his Matchbox toy collection to the little boy next door.
And then, four days after he lost his job, four years after his parents separated, this 1.8m tall, handsome lad with dozens of friends, brains, prospects, got into his car and took his life.
For him it was over. And for the family who loved him the horror was just beginning. "Kirsten [Aaron's sister] was hysterical. I grabbed the phone and told her Dad was on the way over with the police. The horror set in. I knew Aaron wasn't being pumped out. It was much worse than that ... We raced down the drive to meet the car. They confirmed Aaron was dead. We were all screaming at the bottom of the drive, on the street. Our friends and the police somehow got us back inside."
Three years on, Thelma French is a very different woman.
During those first dark days after Aaron died, she read about the Yellow Ribbon project in an American book called Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. "The brilliant thing about Yellow Ribbon is that it's a project for young people helping young people with support from adults and the community at large," she says. "It's a really good, sustainable model where volunteers go back into schools every year, reminding kids, talking to new students, keeping the message alive."
What is the message? "Basically that kids should talk to each other, look after each other - and call someone they trust or the experts when they're worried or things get too tough."
But before the project could even be piloted here, French and her team of supporters at the Youth Suicide Awareness Trust, Peter Quinn, advertising creative Marco Marinkovich, Gregory Fortuin and Patrick Green, had to get past New Zealand government policy.
"In New Zealand there is a very strong recommendation not to talk about suicide - and not to use the word at all when speaking to students," says French. "We wouldn't have got past first base if we hadn't changed our approach."
So French and her team sat down and rewrote the highly successful American material. "That's why our focus has been different," she says. "But it's good. We want to change everything at the top of the cliff so that kids never get to the suicide stage. We also want to help kids become more resilient."
Fanning out from a slogan dreamed up by a 24-year-old advertising whizz at Marinkovich's Creativebank, "It's OK to use a Four Letter Word. It's OK to ask for HELP," which was turned into ads, posters and pamphlets, the Yellow Ribbon message was piloted at Maclean's College, Howick, one of Aaron's old schools.
Armed with 2000 pamphlets, and giveaway packs made up of cards containing the Yellow Ribbon "what to do if you're worried" list (which students can give to someone they trust if they have a problem and can't talk about it), yellow ribbons to wear on their uniforms to remind them to be aware of others and yellow jellybeans for fun, French presented her message to the school's 12 house leaders.
The next step was for the leaders to talk to the students themselves and hand out the Yellow Ribbon packs put together by French's band of volunteers and paid for out of a $1500 donation from the Half Moon Bay Rotary Club. French sat in to see how the students reacted.
"It was fantastic," she says. "This 17- year-old saying, 'We have to change, have to talk about our problems - especially us guys.' They listen so much harder to someone of their own age who they respect."
The Yellow Ribbon message is clear. You can help to keep people safe by following three simple procedures if classmates seem fragile: listen to them, stay with them, get help.
And from now on that help is available via the Yellow Ribbon cards giving numbers for Youth Line, Lifeline and Mensline. Explains French, "Yellow Ribbon is not the be-all and end-all. Basically we'll see that worried people are referred to the right experts and agencies, in their communities. It also refers families who have a suicidal youngster to support agencies - offering encouragement so they don't give up."
Two years after the Macleans launch, Howick College, backed by Howick Rotary which also donated another $1500, has started its own Yellow Ribbon project.
Now, with the opening of the national campaign, French and her team are hoping to help to set up the project, each with its own set of volunteers - and its own fundraising - throughout New Zealand.
Why do young New Zealanders kill themselves in such numbers? Representatives of the 12 families, who have come together to help to launch the Yellow Ribbon campaign and describe their anguish when a family member took his or her life, say there's no one answer.
There are, however, certain factors that come up over and over again.
Family breakup. Drugs and alcohol. Thelma French: "Drugs, specifically marijuana, are now available in intermediate school - and it just stuffs them up completely. They get hooked before they know the damage they're doing. They take drugs thinking they'll feel better, but it's hard to handle the downside that always comes."
Ian Grant, of Parenting With Confidence, agrees. "The real issue is the 14-year-old, going through maturation [who smokes dope]. It flicks them somehow. Alcohol's bad, but they can be drunk at night and clear-headed in the morning. Marijuana stays in the brain for a while and that's terrible."
Michael Tanner, who killed himself in September 1997, was one of those young people whose personalities are "flicked" by marijuana. Says his mother Robyn, "He discovered marijuana in his friend's schoolbag when he was 13 and they shared it. Then they used to smoke it on Thursday nights - pay day. And his behaviour started to change. We tried for five years to find somewhere that'd take him. Basically what we were watching was a deterioration. He wasn't schizophrenic, but he was paranoid. Big mood swings ...
"That last morning my Mum was up from Whitianga and Michael threw an egg at us. His grandmother was really upset. I walked up the steps and said, 'Michael that's it. You have to be out of this house by Monday morning."'
Robyn never needed to throw Michael out. By 3.30 that afternoon, her precious son was dead.
Today, three years later, Michael's grandmother Merle Blakeborough, who plans to help introduce the Yellow Ribbon project at Whitianga area school in March 2000, still sobs when she talks about him. "He was so sweet I could eat him without salt."
Danny McCrae, who took his life on Guy Fawkes night five years ago, also smoked marijuana. Says his mother, Fiona, "He was just so disillusioned with life. He'd say to me, 'Do people really listen to you Mum? Do they really give a shit?"' What he never really worked out was how very much his family did care - nor the importance of those relationships.
Then there are the impetuous suicides like that of 18-year-old Paul Quinn, who killed himself on the day before Valentine's Day, 1997, after his girlfriend died when he crashed his Mini Clubman GT. Says his father, Peter, who greeted him with the relief and fury of a parent whose son is brought home by police at 1 am, "I pointed my finger at him - 'You think you're bloody Stirling Moss. You should treat every person in your car like a baby."'
Paul walked out of the house and never came back. Says Quinn today, "No one was there for him. I should have put my arms around him, 'Hey son, I love you' ... Every fibre of my body was affected - and still is."
Parents have to contend with trying to work out whether suicidal threats are genuine or not. It is not uncommon for young people to use the threat of suicide to get their own way.
Advises Ian Grant, "What you have to say is, 'If I give in [and give you that sportscar to keep you safe], I'm ruining your life really."
Parents, trust your instincts. If you're worried, get help.
Encourage young people to think it through when they have a problem.
Grant talks about the six "paths to suicide":
* Self-hatred (which could be caused by abuse)
* Marijuana and alcohol
* Lack of social skills (they don't connect with people);
* Lack of adult mentors
* Lack of a sense of hope
* Lack of the right messages in their heads. And those messages? "I like myself. I can think for myself. There's no problem so big it can't be solved."
Says Grant, "We call this the resilience quotient. Parents also need to remember that at about 14 kids rethink everything they've learned and individuate it. They do it their way. With teenagers rules without reason create rebellion."
The roots of suicide are extremely complex. Experts in the field estimate that 90 per cent of people who take their own life are suffering from a diagnosable mental illness, often depression. The precipitating event is only the tip of the iceberg.
For Thelma French and the other families who have chosen to become the public face of Yellow Ribbon, the reality of life without their sons and daughter is moving into a stage where there are more good than bad days. "You'll notice that I haven't approached anyone who has experienced a really recent suicide," says French. "They're too raw. But for me, it's time to move on. A friend said to me, 'It's your journey, Thelma. We're here to help you but you have to travel it yourself.' It's up to me whether it's a nice life or a sad, poor-me life ... I put a lot down to my upbringing as well. My Mum and Dad were so positive. Their message was, 'It doesn't matter what happens to you in life, it's how you take it.'
Some things are just tougher than others."
What to do if you're worried someone may be at risk:
1 Stay with the person - you are their lifeline.
2 Listen, really listen. Take them seriously.
3 Get or call for help immediately if you need support.
Remember: keep that Yellow Ribbon Card close to hand; it has the advice and numbers you may need.
Encourage your children to carry it with them.
Tell them if they are in need but don't know how to ask for help or can't talk about it, they can just show the card to you or a counsellor.
Yellow Ribbon 09 523-4468
Youth Line 0800 376 633
Lifeline 09 522 2999
Mensline 09 522 2500
Call the Yellow Ribbon Charity Line: 0900 70 500. This will automatically debit your account by $10.
OR simply call a Westpac Trust branch and ask to make a donation to the Yellow Ribbon programme.
Underpinning factors which put young people at risk:
* Loss of an important person, eg, through divorce of parents, break-up of a relationship, death.
* Recent suicide of friend or relative.
* Exposure to violence, incest or rape.
* Loss of position - status, job.
* Unwanted pregnancy.
* Major hurt or humiliation.
* "Coming out."
* Trouble with the police or court appearance.
* Refusal by significant other to provide support, help or love.
* Increased drug or alcohol use.
* Giving away prized possessions.
* Withdrawal from friends.
* Sleeping too much, too little, or sporadically.
* Sudden and striking changes in mood and personality.
* Taking death-defying risks.
* Self-mutilating, e.g., cutting arms.
* Becoming more compulsive.
* Loss of interest in favourite pastimes.
* Sudden happiness after prolonged period of depression.
* Saying things like, "I wish I were dead" or "I'm going to end it all" or "No one cares if I live or die."
(Provided by Spinz, Suicide Prevention Information in New Zealand.)