How Joe Paulo's attempted suicide turned into a path to healing for others

How Joe Paulo's attempted suicide turned into a path to healing for others
Photo credit: Joe Paulo / Getty Images

Warning: This article discusses suicide and mental health - there are helplines at the end to contact if you or anyone you know is at risk or just needs to talk.

An Auckland man who tried to take his own life eight years ago has opened up about his journey to healing and his passion to help others stuck in difficult circumstances.

Joe Paulo told New Zealand mental health podcast Are You Mental? how his attempted suicide opened up a world of support he never knew existed, giving him a new lease on life.

'I'm scared I'll do something'

The son of parents who immigrated to south Auckland from Samoa, Paulo bounced around from home to home a lot during his youth, which was one of many factors causing him mental and emotional distress.

"It was overall a loving home, but a very mentally confusing home. And I just rebelled," Paulo told Are You Mental? host Mick Andrews.

"The teenage years were really troubling because I couldn't quite figure out how to navigate the path of what my mum wanted, what my dad wanted and the pressures of my siblings at the time.

"My mum wanted me to be a doctor and get a high-paying job so that when I grew up, I could look after them."

Paulo says responsibility was foisted on him at a young age - he was regularly forced to miss school to babysit relatives and cook meals - which left him feeling "robbed" of his childhood, and holding "a lot of anger and hatred".

"None of my family were actually listening to me say, 'You guys have had your shot at life, let me mould my own'. I don't want to be a doctor. I don't want to be a lawyer. I loved the arts industry, but mum didn't see the fruit in it."

After years of feeling unsupported by those closest to him and running away from home, Paulo's mental health spiralled.

"What I was trying to say to [people] was, 'There are thoughts going on in my head. I don't know how to process those thoughts, and I'm scared that I'm either going to lose my mind or I'm going to do something. Which is what led to 2016."

With financial pressures mounting, balancing a full-time job, looking after his wife, who has severe epilepsy, and grappling with feeling like he had no value, Paulo decided he would end his life.

"The fog just got thicker and I sank deeper and deeper, and I said 'I don't belong here anymore'," Paulo recalls.

Thankfully, just before his suicide attempt, Paulo had contacted someone to say goodbye. As a result, urgent calls were made and Paulo's work manager interrupted him with a phonecall.

"He was saying 'You're larger than life, you're a big character. I value you and care about you and I don't want you to do anything stupid. You matter a lot to me, Joe.'

"'You matter' - nobody had ever said that to me. I was just bawling my eyes out. That's all I ever wanted [to hear]. I never heard it from Dad, from Mum, from my siblings, my in-laws, anyone.

"I'm going. 'Wait, people do love me, I'm just too angry and too sad to see it.' I'm so glad it failed. What followed from that experience, was what I can only describe as the journey to actual healing."

'The lifeline I so needed'

For Paulo, the main change after surviving his suicide attempt was that people around him suddenly realised the intensity of his mental health crisis, and put significant effort in to supporting and connecting with him.

His employer made his schedule more flexible, enabling him to look after his wife more effectively and go to the gym, and colleagues would regularly check in to ensure he felt supported. At the same time, his in-laws increased their support and he started attending a men's group called Kiwi Daddys.

"Kiwi Daddys was the lifeline for me that I so needed. I met a group of amazing men who were dropping off food parcels, inviting me and my wife to all these different events and for dinner - it was just real support.

"It created a real safe space to actually start talking about, 'Hey, this is what's going on in my head. This is what I'm facing. How do I deal with it?'"

Since then, Paulo has been able to process much of the hardship he's faced in life, and has now dedicated himself to helping people who are in dark places themselves.

Alongside his wife, he's the co-founder of You Matter, a charitable trust focusing on suicide prevention and supporting those bereaved by suicide. Their goal is to help people turn their stories of trauma into stories of strength and resilience.

He also runs an agency that provides wrap-around services to whānau who want to address their finances, but struggle due to a variety of factors.

Asked what advice he'd give people whose loved ones are struggling with the hardships of life, Paulo says the key thing is to make the time.

"Make the time to check in on that person - and make that check-in 100% about that person. And if you feel you need to ask the question 'are you having suicidal thoughts?', ask it. It's important to ask those questions rather than not ask and regret it later. We need to ask that question.

"Remember, it's not about you, it's about them. You're not taking on their heaviness or their pain - you're just the person who's there to be a sounding board, to let them pull [their emotions] out and sink them into the ground."

And for those in the midst of hopelessness themselves, who may be contemplating suicide, Paulo says his story serves as proof that there is always another way.

"That voice you're hearing in your mind that's telling you that you're useless? That's wrong. The voice that says you're not worth anything? That's wrong. If you didn't belong here, you would never have been born.

"Your life has value. You have purpose. You are important. You're not small. You're not useless. You're not stuck. You're not stupid. You are chosen. You are loved."

Where to find help and support