Jacinda Ardern moved to tears at World Suicide Prevention Day

Hundreds of shoes that travelled thousands of kilometres across New Zealand were laid to rest on Sunday on the grounds at Parliament. 

Over 15 days, two collections of 606 shoes traversed 3000km cross-country from Cape Reinga to Bluff, meeting in the capital.

Each shoe represented a New Zealander lost to suicide and, on Sunday, World Suicide Prevention Day, people gathered to commemorate their loved ones lost.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern choked up when speaking, and said the sight of the shoes was "moving".

Addressing a crowd of around 150 people she talked about the suicide of her best friend's brother when she was 13.

"Those shoes are quite moving," she said. "The idea that we have lost 600 New Zealanders in the last year I find absolutely devastating."

The YesWeCare rally saw the shoes travel to more than 20 towns. The collection grew as those around the country affected by suicide added their loved ones' shoes. Many of those families travelled across the country to attend the event.

Initially, there were 579 shoes, but a further 27 were added after new suicide statistics were released during the roadshow. 

Included in the hundreds of shoes were 13 shoes for 10- to 14-¬year-olds, 38 for older teenagers and 101 for those older than 60.

There were 130 shoes for Māori, and 475 shoes for men.

Jane Stevens, who lost her son Nicky, 21, to suicide in 2015, travelled with the shoes on their way to Parliament. Her son's body was found three days after he went missing from a mental health inpatient unit.

She said the shoes were a devastating visual reminder that brought people to tears "as the loss becomes more real", and a "heart-stopping reminder of all those whanau we've lost in the last 12 months".

Ms Stevens said the journey had been heart-breaking, but extraordinary, and that her struggle with the loss of her son had been public, which wasn't the family's initial choice. 

"We were proud of our son. We would never hide his struggle and by going public we were trying to honour him." 

A vocal advocate for an urgent, independent inquiry into New Zealand's mental health crisis, she said many bereaved families were blamed, intimidated and silenced.

"It was bloody hard for us to get through that stigma at first, but in the end it fired our determination to seek change."

She realised silence wasn't helping to create change.

"Unless people were brave enough to speak out, this cycle was going to continue and more people were going to die."

Seventy-seven percent of New Zealanders, and all political parties except National and ACT, support an inquiry.

Ms Stevens said her family had been "desperate" for seven years trying to get help for her son.

"We realised government underfunding meant there were huge gaps in what safe and adequate mental health services were available and it wasn't just our family falling through the gaps."

She said she was desperate to see change so other communities didn't have the same life-shattering experience her family had.

The Shoe Project was supported heath coalition YesWeCare, and the Public Service Association, New Zealand's mental health union.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact:

  • Lifeline's 24-hour telephone counselling service on 0800 543 354.
  • Depression Helpline (8am to 12 midnight) - 0800 111 757
  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666 (for callers from the Lower North Island, Christchurch and West Coast) or 0800 211 211 / (04) 473 9739 (for callers from all other regions)
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Youthline - 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz
  • What's Up (for 5-18 year olds; 1 pm to 11 pm) - 0800 942 8787
  • Kidsline (aimed at children up to 14 years of age; 4pm to 6pm weekdays) 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline)