Hāhi goes deep on suicide

A frank discussion on the sensitive topic of suicide brought together ideas from around the world during Friday’s wānanga at Te Rūnanganui o te Pihopatanga o Aotearoa.It was an emotional start to Friday 29 September for manuhiri gathered together in Hastings for Te Rūnanganui 2023.

A panel of indigenous experts spoke to the topic of matepōwaiwai – a word that shifts the concept of suicide away from whakamomori (that implies unstoppable distress) and moves instead to a journey through deep and dark water. Speakers shared sacred stories of losing whānau to suicide and of how it can feel to engage in suicidal ideation oneself.

The morning began with kai hapa, opening karakia and Bible reflection, delivered by visiting US-based Chinese theologian Prof Kwok Pui Lan.

Sharing her interpretation of John 15 – Jesus’ final words to his disciples – Prof Pui Lan told Te Rūnanganui that her understanding had been both deepened and broadened by participating in the Anglican Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

“My context has been radically expanded. Today we gather from different parts of Aotearoa New Zealand. We will share how we abide in the love of God. Jesus, before leaving his disciples, said ‘I will treat you as friends, no longer servants. Friends know each other whereas servants do not’. He had a grand vision – that all of us as part of creation can be friends of God and of each other.”

Moving to the panel discussion, Archbishop Don Tamihere warned guests that the topics covered could be triggering or distressing, and to take time to step away, to pray or sing as they felt they needed.

“It is a dark kaupapa, but we will enter into it lightly, with the light of God.”

On the panel, led by Ven Michael Tamihere (Te Rau Theological College Tumuaki), Rev. Dr Bradley Hauff (Oglala Sioux) and Rev. Canon Cornelia Eaton (Navajo) – spoke candidly of their experiences working at the crossroads of indigeneity and suicide in the USA.

Rev Canon Eaton explained that in Navajo culture there’s no word for suicide.
“We don’t name it because in my culture, naming things gives them power.”

Having lost her own brother to suicide while he was incarcerated, she shared, too, of the pain that her whānau suffered following his death.

“We go into the darkest places, where it can be hard to experience God being present.’”

The distress is altogether similar, then, to the anguish those who consider taking their life feel.

“In many cases of suicide, the person is experiencing a mood disorder of some kind, and in a state of distress,” said Rev Dr Bradley Hauff who is Missioner for Indigenous Peoples for the Presiding Bishop of the USA and a clinical psychologist.

“Perhaps they are in trouble with the law and facing a lengthy jail term. Perhaps they’re in a great deal of financial difficulty or facing bankruptcy. In young people, it could be the result of being severely bullied at school.”

Rev Dr Hauff explained that the common denominator in all cases is that the person suffering doesn’t want to die, per se, “but they want the pain to end, and don’t see a path forward for them. Ending their life is the only way out.”

According to the Centre for Disease Control in the United States, the rate of suicide for indigenous people is almost twice that of the general population, he continued.

Dr Hauff cited a struggle to understand identity as a major factor leading to indigenous suicide.

“Many of our indigenous young people are facing a world that tells them ‘You’re indigenous, therefore you don’t count. You don’t matter.’ And, even worse than that, ‘You’re not supposed to be here.’”

“In the United States, one in five indigenous people, at some point, attempts to take their life. It’s complex, multi-layered, multi-faceted, but what we could look at in the Church is how we respond to this pain.’”

Internationally renowned suicide prevention consultant Barry Taylor shared his own, very raw, experience of suicide contemplation and his pathway forward.

He touched on the darkness that envelops the suicidal person and the place of pain it comes from. “So how do we minister to that pain?” he asked. “What do we do with the shroud of that darkness? Suicide is not where we need to start the conversation – rather, we should ask what is it that is causing the pain?  And rather than trying to stop people killing themselves, let’s reframe it.

What does it mean to invite people to live and to thrive?’”

He also spoke passionately on the impact of abuse and incarceration on indigenous people. “We must look at social policy and those who want to spend billions more building prisons to put people into. Who will go into those prisons? It won’t be Pākehā.”

At the conclusion of the kōrero, Archbishop Don invited a small group to respond to what had been heard and shared.

Summing up, he called on Te Rūnanganui to work for change in Aotearoa so that people who are imprisoned or struggling with depression are “not pariahs to be marginalised, but children of God to be loved.”