Hard Man: The traditional warrior virtues which the Waiariki MP, Te Ururoa Flavell, so obviously prizes make no allowances for the mental frailties to which all human-beings are heir. Suicide cannot be shaken out of society. Mr Flavell's proposed "hard stance" can only make the problem of youth suicide worse.
THE VENEER of modernity which covers New Zealand is very thin. Well-educated bureaucrats in government ministries, and well-meaning volunteers in NGOs strive to enlighten the general public on everything from the rudiments of safe driving and safe sex, to the complexities of competing electoral systems and the maintenance of mental health. And then, just when they’re certain the country is making progress, along comes somebody like the MP for Waiariki, Te Ururoa Flavell, and proves them wrong.
To say that Mr Flavell’s column in the Rotorua Daily Post was wilfully ignorant, socially destructive and deeply wounding to the families and friends of suicide victims does scant justice to its general offensiveness.
Responding to the suicides of ten young people in Kawerau over the past year, and two more in the Bay of Plenty this past week, Mr Flavell wrote:
“I say we are at a point where we say, ‘that’s it, no more. No more suicides.”
This statement would have been inane enough in its own right – akin to saying: “That’s it, no more. No more rain.” But Flavell went on to suggest a solution which was much, much worse.
“Perhaps we should make a very hard stand with this”, wrote Flavell. “If a child commits suicide, let us consider not celebrating their lives on our marae; perhaps bury them at the entrance of the cemetery so their deaths will be condemned by the people.”
But why stop there, Mr Flavell? Why not bury them at the cross-roads with a wooden stake through their heart?
How the more educated and progressive members of the Maori community must have recoiled from Mr Flavell’s statements. Not only because they were so mind-bogglingly ill-informed, cruel and counter-productive, but because they pushed into the unforgiving sunlight an aspect of Maori culture that most Pakeha knew nothing about: the powerful belief that suicide is “hara” – sinful – and a cause for shame among whanau and hapu.
European culture held very similar views about suicide well into the 20th Century. Indeed, it is only in the last 50-60 years that the act of suicide ceased to be a crime. It is also a relatively simple matter to locate graveyards in New Zealand where the tombstones of suicides stand outside the walls – testimony to the church’s refusal to bury their bodies in hallowed ground.
In the last 40 years, however, medical science has driven legal persecution and religious superstition out of the context in which suicide is considered. In all but the most benighted of communities, Pakeha New Zealanders have learned to view suicide as the ultimate manifestation of acute clinical depression. Considerable effort and a great deal of money has been invested in lifting the age-old social stigma from depression sufferers. We are encouraged to look for the danger signs in our loved ones, to talk with them openly and honestly about their illness, and to seek out professional help.
Clearly, only a little of this enlightened attitude towards suicide and clinical depression has filtered through to the Maori community. Whether the suicide stigma predates European contact, or is just one more of the pernicious legacies of the Christian missionaries, there is in Maoridom a woeful lack of understanding about the causes and cures for suicidal behaviour.
Woeful, and in the case of Mr Flavell himself, wilful.
This, after all, is the MP who announced to the readers of the Rotorua Daily Post that he had, only a week before, attended a forum on suicide, where he listened to the “insights” of “some experts in this field”. He was also aware of the National Conference on Suicide that had taken place the week before that. Notwithstanding these opportunities to listen and learn, Mr Flavell informed his readers that:
“From what I have heard, one is almost wasting time asking why this happens.”
Really, Mr Flavell? And was that because the answers provided were complex and difficult? Did they point you in the direction of families in which the free sharing of personal feelings and problems was discouraged? Was it because there was much discussion in those forums about the crucial contribution such social evils as educational failure, joblessness, alcohol, drug addiction and domestic violence make to the suicide statistics? Did the “experts in this field” refuse to provide you with the simple/simplistic solutions you were demanding? Is that why you retreated – as your Maori Party leader, Tariana Turia, so often does – back into the old Maori world of mysticism and magic? A world in which suicide victims and their whanau were cursed, cast out and denied the spiritual protection of the urupa?
Seldom has the redeeming power of science and education been so urgently required than in those Maori communities where the stigma of suicide still casts its dark shadow. In spite of Mr Flavell’s obvious convictions to the contrary, suicide is not something that can be shaken or shamed out of a person. Nor is clinical depression a condition that can be cured by a brusque, emotionally-stunted man grabbing the sufferer by the shoulders and ordering him to “toughen-up”.
Traditional Maori society placed enormous stock by the manly virtues of the warrior. Stoicism, courage, coolness under fire and the ability to bounce back – these were the qualities the elders looked for among the rising generation. And they are admirable qualities. But, sadly, not everyone is lucky enough to be blessed with them. In every society there are those who cannot simply bounce back. That does not make them less valuable or less needful of their community’s understanding and assistance.
Taking a “hard stance” on suicide, Mr Flavell, will bring only more misery – not less.
This essay is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.