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United we stand: How HopeWalk is helping to fight suicide

Samoan pastor Joseph Fa’afiu (left) carries his seven-year-old son, Ryan, on a recent HopeWalk in Auckland. More than 2000 people  joined them, including Anita Mary (flying the flag) and banner-holders Aisaka Faavoga, Rebecca Faavoga and Sue Nicolson.

Communities are taking to the street to help open a “door called hope”.

When Samoan pastor Joseph Fa’afiu lost one of his best friends to suicide, he kept asking why?

Why did Ebony – a 29-year-old with a loving husband and three young girls – end her life? Why didn’t he know something was wrong? Why couldn’t he stop it happening? But his why was also broader: why is there such a stigma around suicide? Why are the numbers rising? Why is there not greater awareness?

A seed had been planted and, in 2015, he decided to water it with action and see what might grow. This year, his HopeWalk suicide prevention movement will host 30 walks, around New Zealand and also in Australia, Canada, the US and the Cook Islands, bringing people together to create hope, strength, awareness and resilience. “It took me on a personal journey,” says Fa’afiu, 36, “and my wife, Lydia, came along on that journey to start this whole movement, which at its heart is about connection.”

The inaugural HopeWalk took place in February last year on a 7km route from Manurewa to Papakura, attracting close to 3000 people. Encouraged to wear yellow – a colour that symbolises hope – many customised T-shirts with names, dates and photos. “It was a sea of yellow taking up whole streets and there was a lot of cultural diversity. Suicide is colour-blind.”

Quest Fenton (centre) holds a photo of his uncle, Winiata Shannon Wilson.

The movement was immediately welcomed, Fa’afiu says. “What amazed me is that others were waiting for action of this kind. Sometimes by realising your dream you allow others to make their dreams happen, too.”

He’s referring to his local “champions”, who step forward to organise a walk in their area or promote the movement in some other way. And real change is already happening. After the HopeWalk in Invercargill, 11 local iwi groups and community agencies decided to band together. “That’s a value we want to thrust out there. No single person or organisation can do this alone. There is strength in unity.”

Sometimes a family comes along with a loved one who’s having suicidal thoughts. The walk is a place for them to feel safe. “When people start honestly talking, that’s where the magic is,” Fa’afiu says. “We need to take people’s attention away from the big door called suicide that they see as the way to ease their pain, and show them this other door called hope.”

According to the Chief Coroner’s report, 579 New Zealanders took their lives by suicide in the 2015-2016 year. Maori and Pacific Island youth, particularly men, are most at risk. “Around 71 per cent have known mental-health issues,” says Fa’afiu. “A long-term view is to build resilience in families and communities, at an early stage in the educational system. That way we will make a stronger New Zealand.”

For Fa’afiu, a father of five, the movement has re-shaped his life, at home with his family where openness is encouraged and at work. He’s done suicide-prevention training with Lifeline and Le Va (a Pasifika support service) and recently took on a part-time contract with Counties Manukau’s health innovation organisation Ko Awatea as project lead for suicide prevention, alongside his continuing role as pastor.

“It’s made me a stronger person,” he says. “And the real strength comes from seeing others stand up and to hear them say, ‘Thank you, you have given me a voice.’” 



This was published in the May 2017 issue of North & South.

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