'I just held back tears': Woman's touching suicide message captures hearts in Waitangi

Waitangi is often considered a hotspot of division and public outrage, but one woman's moving message at the Northland village received the attention of the Prime Minister, Don Brash, and much of the local community.

Katie Tahere is an organiser of Hope Walk New Plymouth-Taranaki, a group dedicated to creating awareness about suicide prevention, whether it be through marching in parades across Taranaki, visiting locals in need, or listening to those who reach out over social media.

Ms Tahere began organising events and marching in 2017 after tragically losing two whānau members to suicide and another to cancer - all within a single week.

"It was so hard to actually get over one [death], then the second one - and with the third one, I think it didn't even kick in, because we couldn't breathe," she told Newshub.

"I feel I still haven't breathed for those three."

Ms Tahere said people struggling with depression or heartbreaking personal circumstances often don't realise there are people they can speak to - including people like her who have been in a "dark place" and felt invisible.

But the mother was anything but invisible on Waitangi Day and the days leading up to it, attending all major events throughout the village in her neon yellow singlet and with a large, bright flag.

Katie Tahere attended every major event at Waitangi.
Katie Tahere attended every major event at Waitangi. Photo credit: Newshub

She only decided to venture north to Waitangi on Sunday, and although she was the only representative from Hope Walk present, her touching message quickly spread around the village and caught the hearts of political figures from both left and right.

On Tuesday, Mr Brash, a Hobson's Pledge spokesperson and former National party leader, arrived at Te Tii Marae after being invited by Rueben Taipari - a controversial invitation due to Mr Brash's opposition to race-based policies and the compulsory teaching of Te Reo.

However, despite concerns of backlash and Te Tii Marae's history with protest, Mr Brash's arrival came with little furore, with the former Reserve bank Governor only approached by media and a few interested onlookers.

One of those bystanders was Ms Tahere with her flag waving high, eager to talk to Mr Brash and Elliot Ikilei, the New Conservatives deputy leader that had accompanied him.

While their conversation was private and brief, she told Newshub it had been emotional and meaningful, with Mr Brash apparently telling her of people he had known who had struggled with mental health issues and suicide.

She said she gained the impression that his support for her work was genuine and resounding, and a hug he gave her afterwards wasn't just a friendly hug, but "meant something".

Only a day later was she having a conversation with another politician, Prime Minister Ardern, who has put issues facing youth at the centre of her administration's focus.

Katie Tahere was one of the lucky few to have a private conversation with the Prime Minister.
Katie Tahere was one of the lucky few to have a private conversation with the Prime Minister. Photo credit: Newshub

Again the chat was brief, but Ms Tahere said the fact Ms Ardern had stopped to talk to her among crowds looking for a similar opportunity had been touching.

"I am strong, but meeting her I just held back my tears as hard I could because I am just so emotional to talk to her about this subject, suicide," she told Newshub from the Waitangi upper marae grounds.

"She was really happy, she was really pleased that I am out there doing this for my community, not only do I feel I am doing it for Taranaki, I feel I am opening up for the rest of New Zealand."

Ms Tahere said she understands the Government can only do so much to help lower New Zealand's dreadful suicide figures, but wishes that local services were given greater funding and that staff were better trained.

Between July 2017 and June 2018, 668 people died from suspected suicide, with 23 per 100,000 Māori committing suicide last year - more than ever before.

In October, advocate Jazz Thornton told Newshub Nation urgent funding was needed to address the suicide numbers, and despite a $10.5 million pilot programme offering counselling services for 18-25 year-olds, the system was still "an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff".

'I just held back tears': Woman's touching suicide message captures hearts in Waitangi
Photo credit: Newshub

With the Government expected to announce changes to the mental health system in March, Ms Tahere's message to the Prime Minister was to keep trying and keep listening.

But she also said it should be communities leading the charge, saying they understood local challenges and how to deal with their own without the sterile practice of Government departments. 

"How I look at it, you open the door, you open it wide, and you don't shut it. If you shut it, people can't walk in and talk about it," she said.

"I just wish a lot more people reach out. It is hard for someone going through a tough time, they just find it hard to get out and talk to someone."

Ms Tahere said as well as going on marches around the community, her group had recently attended four Christmas parades in the Taranaki district and decorated a large trailer to make sure people know "we are here for everybody".

The group's Facebook page is also key to giving people an avenue to talk and letting people know about important events, she said.

"As soon as I seen an event I share, as soon as we are organising an event we will post it, I share quote. It really has to be something that has affected me.

"I go by my heart, by my instinct, about what to share... I just feel we need to get the message out."

Ms Tahere said one child had reached out to her group earlier that morning, struggling to deal with their brother's passing and they wanted "to go with him".

"I am really, really gutted that our youth have to go through this."

Working with other groups like the Taranaki RATS (Riders Against Teenage Suicide), Ms Tahere said she believed the groups were making a positive difference.

"I just hope I don't hear about another suicide."

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact:

  • Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737
  • Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
  • Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat
  • Samaritans - 0800 726 666
  • Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Newshub.