Karissa Cunningham admits she's an overprotective mother.

The Rotorua woman lost her 16-year-old cousin Lisa Cunningham to suicide when she was a teenager. Now two of her own children are teenagers.

"I am paranoid," Mrs Cunningham said.

"I wrap my kids in cotton wool. I am always checking on them."


Nearly 20 years after the death, she spoke about it for the first time at an event run by health funding coalition Yes We Care at the Rotorua Lakefront today. Lisa's mother and another cousin were also there.

The three women were among dozens of Rotorua residents who shared stories about their lost loved ones.

Exactly 606 pairs of shoes, one for every person who died from suicide in the year to June 2017, was set up on the cobblestones.

The footwear is being taken around the country before reaching Parliament's steps on September 10. Bereaved families will talk about the change they want to see in the presence of politicians.

Ms Cunningham said it was a weekend morning when Lisa, a Rotorua Girls' High student, died.

Her boyfriend phoned for her at her family's home but when her mother went to wake her she found her dead.

Karissa Cunningham was 18 at the time. She had done a beauty course and remembers being asked to do Lisa's make-up for the funeral.

Hundreds of shoes were laid out at the Rotorua Lakefront to represent people who have died by suicide. Photo / Supplied
Hundreds of shoes were laid out at the Rotorua Lakefront to represent people who have died by suicide. Photo / Supplied

"It was hard," she said.

"I had never seen a dead person before."

She is studying to be a counsellor which she thinks is a result of being inspired to help people like Lisa.

Another cousin, Kara Cunningham, was 13 when Lisa died.

She works as a mental health nurse which she also says she was inspired to do after Lisa's death.

She remembers "wanting to help everyone" when she was in high school.

But she struggled with depression growing up which took "a long time to settle down".

She tells her own two children to not sweat the small details.

Lisa's mother Gaylene Cunningham said: "I think of her every day. Some days are more heartbreaking then others.

"She was friendly, open and had hundreds of friends.

"She had time to help everyone else, but she couldn't help herself."

Her advice for young people was: "There is always someone to talk to. Don't be afraid to ask for help."

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 (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
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.