One of the biggest disappointments of events early on Sunday morning at the National Party conference was that some excellent policy sessions were not reported. The media chose instead to focus on perceived disunity.
As good as the sessions which included Cameron Bagrie on the economy, James A. Brown on technology and Prof Des Gorman on health and Covid were, the highlight was far and away the session on mental health and suicide.
National has given Matt Doocey the spokesmanship for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, and Judith Collins announced on Sunday that, when National is elected in 2023, Doocey is likely to hold these specific roles in a newly-created ministerial portfolio. I personally believe that is a fantastic idea.
You may have heard of Grace Curtis. This is an excerpt from the transcript of the speech Grace delivered to the conference late on Sunday morning:
Kia Ora koutou, my name is Grace, and I am very nervous. They say, you should picture the crowd naked, but I’m not sure it’s helping.
I just want to begin by saying I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to speak about an issue very close to my heart. I find it really bizarre that I am standing here today, truly not where I thought I’d ever be. In fact, if I could get the chance to tell my late father, he would say, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Although I’m not here for a nice reason, I do hope you can take away something from what I have to say. In January 2020 I arrived out at the family farm in North Canterbury to have a beer with my Dad, only to discover we had lost him to suicide. Mum managed to call my phone on her way home to tell me she had dinner sorted and wouldn’t be far away… only to hear an unexplained and unbearable scream from the other end of the line. Our nearest neighbours heard my screams from a distance and rushed to my rescue. Not long after, the police arrived. My mum and sister arrived not long after them. My little sister collapsed out of the car, whilst vomiting, and Mum walked like a zombie towards the police, unable to blink, her mouth half open, completely saturated in shock.
I remember going blind, I remember going numb. I remember ‘not my Dad, that can’t be my Dad’. It was like a scene from a horrible movie, but it wasn’t a movie, it was our life. I imagine you’ll find it surprising that it was not long after this we were able to get into our cars, leave the scene and drive a whole hour into Christchurch. The state of shock was so severe none of us recall the drive.
Although, this was not the only gap our situation highlighted in the mental health system. It was six whole days after our darkest day that I received a text from a support service. And aside from a mere couple of attempts to visit or speak to us, we were really left to our own devices. Any assistance we acquired with the trauma of losing our Dad, we booked and paid for ourselves. Prior to losing Dad, we fought against an exhausted systematic failure for over two years. Time and time again we were told, “we are really sorry, there’s nothing that can be done.”
Grace’s speech held conference delegates spellbound. I would urge you to read the entire transcript, and even if you’re a cynical old fart like me, have a hankie or tissues handy. There was barely a dry eye in the conference venue. The silence at the end of the speech was broken by a prolonged standing ovation.
At 22, Grace has her whole adult life ahead of her, but her father won’t be there to pour her a beer, or give her the benefit of his farmer’s wisdom. Instead of wallowing in her grief, Grace and two other young women, Tori Wheelans and Georgie Harris, both of whom have also lost their fathers to suicide, have formed Cool Change NZ, an organisation to provide support and just an outlet to their peers who too have been bereaved by suicide.
After the conference ended, I was privileged to speak to Grace, and commend her on her bravery in talking about events which must still be incredibly raw. Talking with her was an experience I will remember for a long time, especially when I ponder the dark days in my not-too-distant past when I could have left my own children in the same space as Grace.
I was fortunate; I got help almost immediately after my breakdown. But hundreds of Kiwis are not getting the help they so desperately need when they have mental health crises. It’s simply not good enough, and neither the current Government or its National-led predecessor have done enough in the mental health space. It’s time that New Zealand took mental health and especially suicide prevention seriously. I’m sure that Grace Curtis wouldn’t mind having to wind up Cool Change NZ because there was no demand.
In the meantime however, I have nothing but deep respect for this courageous young woman and her equally brave friends, who are trying to salvage something positive from their own personal tragedies.