Lorene Royal is a mother and grandmother who’s worked in the voluntary sector for more than 30 years. She has lived in the Hokianga in the Far North for most of her life. It’s a beautiful part of the country — idyllic even. The kind of place you’d expect to find peace and tranquillity. For many people, though, that’s far from the reality.
On Christmas day, I read an article about the experiences of the prime minister’s partner, Clarke Gayford. He talked about the stresses of being the country’s most famous stay-at-home dad, how far the country had come in its willingness to speak about mental health, and how nice it was that “systems and funding and things have been put in place”.
I really wish that was the case.
I live in a small town on an isthmus on the Hokianga in the Far North. It’s a largely Māori community where mental health is somewhat like Motu Whakaari/White Island: ready to blow, no matter what state of denial the industry is in.
My Christmas day reality was about needing respite from mentally-stressed families. My whānau just needed our environment to be tranquil.
But, in my neighbourhood, throughout the month of Christmas, the loudest sounds were the frequent first-responder sirens which alerts the volunteer fire brigade — and everyone else — to the crises in our midst. In our town, the fire brigade has more callouts for accidents, medical emergencies and suicides than it does for fires.
The sound of the siren carries across the waters to the north side of the Hokianga Harbour. For many of us, it raises fears and prayers, as we wait for the fallout. As we wait to know if it’s one of ours who’s hurt or dead.
One of our firefighters planned a little street dinner in the first week of December so we could all relax, take off our respective community hats, and get to know and enjoy our neighbours. We’re a mixed pot of semi-retired baby boomers who are active in the community. A few of us have grown up here, more than half have whakapapa links to the whenua, and some are more recent arrivals.
Our small street is on a hill, and our venue for dinner was at the top of the hill, just over from where my great-grandmother once had a whare. We sat watching the setting sun overlooking a stunning panoramic view of the harbour. A panacea for the exhausted and stressed.
But our pre-Christmas celebration was overshadowed by significant and persistent “events” that show how broken our communities actually are.
A woman took her own life in a neighbouring street. What’s distressing is that she was isolated in every sense. Her contact with the outside world had been reduced to the mental health care workers who were alerted to check on her when she didn’t pick up her medication.
Into the new year, another neighbour at the end of the street took the same route. Around us, there’s a growing normalcy around people just “checking out”. Within the past year, there’ve been seven suicides in the Hokianga. That we know of.
Throughout small rural communities like ours, the reverberations of whakamomori, of desperation, are distressing. The threat of suicide and domestic violence are ever-present.
In fishbowl communities, you hear domestic violence like it’s in your own bedroom. To hear a man who’s been previously silent in frequent episodes of abuse, screaming he’s going to kill himself a week before Christmas — while your own whānau are trying to grieve the tragic loss of a loved one — makes me think we’re in an alternate reality to Clarke Gayford’s world. No disrespect to him.
The existence and ripples of trauma throughout communities like ours — in many cases intergenerational — is too hard for many to comprehend, especially beneath the veneer of the quaint village life that’s presented to outsiders.
“How beautiful,” a tourist commented to me as I sat reflecting in our local café over the water. I could only muster a monotone reply: “Totally.”
Our Pākehā neighbours approached me to talk about offering support to a traumatised family who’ve been stuck in this cycle of abuse for over a year. Would I, being Māori, consider supporting them to do so? I told them that was a commendable idea, but that we, who’ve been volunteers for a very long time, also suffer burnout — and I was feeling very burned out.
With this particular family, we can see there are persistent mental health issues, but we have no faith in the ability of mental health services, and no opportunity to talk with the people providing those services — about what we know as concerned neighbours, and how we might work with them to better help our neighbours.
From where I sit, the failings in our mental health services are obvious. They’ve been seriously underfunded for years and there are huge challenges in delivering services in a large geographical area of 1500 square kilometres.
This is an area of high socio-economic deprivation and high unemployment. The 2013 census records the median income here as $16,400. Unfortunately, the debacle with the latest census means we don’t have up-to-date socio-economic information about ourselves. (I mean, how out of touch do you have to be to think that computerised census data collection would work in ill-equipped rural communities?) So, the closest estimate I can get of our population is around 7,000 people, but who knows?
We’re seeing the constant ebb and flow of whānau between their home communities and cities, in many cases spanning four generations like my own. Often, we see families returning because it’s too hard to live in the cities — only to leave again because of the lack of employment or housing.
In my voluntary work, we try to help those in reduced circumstances, but sometimes the most we can do is advocate for Work and Income support to help them leave the area.
Rural communities are suffering the effects of this transient flow — of this ongoing insecurity and rootlessness experienced by our families. We can already see how it affects the capacity for volunteerism, which I’d argue is the glue of rural communities.
I worry about the increasingly heavy load being carried by volunteer firefighters, who are exposed to trauma as the first responders to accidents, medical emergencies, suicides, and fires. They have access to counselling, but who monitors the cumulative effects and rate of exposure on these volunteers — and just how durable is this approach, in communities that more often have reduced services?
A fall in the number of volunteers needed to maintain the ambulance service, which serves the mid-north region, has seen an inevitable drop in service. Tough luck if you needed an ambulance after 6pm. And it’s not a good idea, either, to die around Christmas, as my whānau found out in 2018 when there were no available clean-up services after a tragic fatality in a loved one’s home. Guess who cleaned up? Oh, and a volunteer fireman doubled as a kaumātua to tautoko the whānau.
The outcome of having dwindling volunteers after 6pm means the Hokianga now sees the rescue helicopter more than ever before. We wonder at the fiscally screwed model where the government can’t pay to keep our vital ambulance service on the ground, but allows the country to pay for a helicopter to service rural isolated regions — not always for crisis.
Why can’t essential services be funded adequately? We used to have ambulance drivers who knew where we lived, who sometimes knew who our neighbours were, and how to get help in difficult situations.
Dialing 111 for domestic abuse should lead to interventions that we have confidence in. But some people are reluctant to do that for a myriad of reasons — they have no faith in the services, and they fear possible repercussions. In one instance, a neighbour who reported domestic violence was named to the people concerned. Leading to unnecessary tension and conflict between neighbours.
For the family in our street who we fear is close to breaking point, there’s now a plan of sorts to help a group of us neighbours respond as quickly as we can. After talking with the overloaded local policeman, we’ve agreed to call 111 if we hear any sign of domestic strife.
But we still feel a hair’s breadth away from murder/suicide — and, yes, there are children in the mix. It’s hit and miss as to whether the right diagnosis and appropriate responses are in place. But, as neighbours, there’s no one we can talk to about that.
The system is broken
Mental health is a fragmented mess. We know the community needs services that aren’t here. Years of under-resourcing are evident throughout Northland, and there’s a need to rebalance that.
There are sweeping national changes in mental health and addiction services as part of current reforms, which have been informed by the 2018 inquiry into mental health and addictions.
But rural areas like the Hokianga were grossly under-represented in the inquiry process — even though the inquiry was supposed to seek input from those with lived experience of mental health and addictions.
So, we’re still having things done to us. We’re having no input into how our communities can envision and enact tino rangatiratanga in health.
The competitive funding model we have now doesn’t encourage real dialogue within communities and grassroots input into these changes, or any cohesion for rural and isolated communities. What we’re witnessing instead is the repositioning among existing providers and institutions, as they jockey to secure more funding or to hold on to what they have.
But it’s more than a funding issue. When we try to participate, we’re asked who we represent. For those of us who stick our heads above the parapet to ask for better, or to be heard, there’s an onslaught of patch protection and subtle bullying.
This is what happens when you have people competing for scraps. It’s just more in your face in largely Māori rural communities that are still reeling from ongoing inequality and Crown injustices under the Treaty settlements framework.
Will 2020 bring more of the same?
Our communities have all the markers for high-suicide risk. Like Nero fiddling while Rome burns, we struggle with competitive behaviour from funded services, as well as being volunteers who deal with the everyday realities of those at risk — including the volunteers.
God forbid that we should have our own stress, grief and trauma to deal with as well.
As last year ended, I made wishes rather than resolutions.
I wish I didn’t have an expanding list of people to pray for.
I wish I knew how I could make a difference.
I wish we could restore the mauri of our whānau and communities.
Lorene Royal — Ngāi Tupoto; Ngāti Here, Ngāti Korokoro; Ngāti Kaharau, Ngāti Hau, Te Kumutu hapū, Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa, Te Roroa iwi — lives in Hokianga and has been a volunteer for more than 30 years. She’s been a founding member of Pakanae Kōhanga Reo, a Tindall Foundation regional grant panel member, a member of the Rawene School board of trustees, and a previous chair of Te Mana o Ngāpuhi Kōwhao Rau. She now chairs the Rawene & Districts Community Development Inc, which seeks to improve quality of life, address inequality, and to envision and enact a distinctive local form of tino rangatiratanga.
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