SUICIDE -- EVERYONE’S PROBLEM: COOK ISLANDS YOUTH URGED TO ‘TALKABOUT IT’

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SUICIDE -- EVERYONE’S PROBLEM:

"Why?" It’s probably the biggest question loved ones of a suicide victim will always ask, even long after the tragedy.

As universal and as old as time itself suicide among the impressionable young -- from 16th century Romeo and Juliet to the 21st century’s Angeline Ngatamaine of Arorangi -- has taken an alarming turn in the Cooks. The WeekEnd caught up with the grieving family, and friends of Angeline who are still grappling with the manner of her death.

By Mona Matepi

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (June 9, 2000 – WeekEnd/Cook Islands News)---It’s been a week since 19-year-old Angeline Ngatamaine was found hanging in her bedroom. Police ruled out foul play. The coroners report said she died of suffocation. Ngatamaine had used a length of electrical wire to hang herself.

Her death is the third teenage suicide in the last three months. In March, a 17-year-old boy in Aitutaki hung himself with a rope. He was found by his family hanging from the ceiling in their house. In April, another young man was found dead, hanging from a frangipani tree in Manihiki. In all three cases, alcohol was involved. Police investigations also found that each of the victims had been going through a personal crisis.

While the families of these teenagers mourn the death of their loved ones, questions will always remain and the issue of who the real victims are now need to be addressed, says the country’s only trained psychiatric nurse Mereana Taikoko. She sees a need for parents and caregivers to pay more heed when teenagers start talking about ending their own lives.

"We need to listen and encourage them to talk about it. For example, if someone says he’s going to commit suicide, instead of getting angry we should ask, why do you want to do that for? And then encourage them to talk about it because these are symptoms; it’s really a cry for help," she said.

And what if parents find they’re not making any headway?

"Then they should approach someone else the youth can talk to, but they should not dismiss or ignore it," she said.

Being the only available trained nurse in the area of mental health in the country, Taikoko despairs at the lack of professional support for people needing psychiatric care and attention.

"We’ve run workshops in the past for youth which touched on this very topic of suicide but it’s not enough. We need more awareness in the community," she added.

She said the issue needs to be dealt with systematically and must involve the larger community as it is not only a youth problem.

A week after her death, Angeline’s father, Customs head Ngapoko Ngatamaine, is determined that life for his family will go on as normal. "We already have another Angeline," he told the WeekEnd. "We have already accepted what’s happened, but I think her friends probably understand or are more clearer than me on whatever was on her mind," he said.

The family, following custom, re-named a granddaughter (Angeline’s niece) with the same name. Ngapoko said he had half expected his daughter’s suicide. "It’s a gut feeling when you watch your child growing up," he said.

Angeline was the fourth in a family of seven children. As is customary in many local families, she was raised by her maternal grandmother and an uncle who lived across the road from her nuclear family. Her workmates at Foodland remembers her as an outgoing bubbly person.

"She was very friendly and always happy, but I guess she wasn’t really happy inside," said one of her friends on checkout.

"She was an open kind of person... clean and true," says her father. "I think she had a lot of pride too, you know, she didn’t care what people said, she had boyfriends and she used to say (jokingly) she would kiss all the frogs ‘til she finds her prince’."

But the question over the manner of her death still remains. Friends of the teenager say she had a habit of threatening to kill herself every time she had boyfriend trouble.

Ngatamaine yesterday said it hadn’t been the first time Angeline had tried to take her own life. "She had done it before and we did try to do something; we tried to talk to her but... I don’t think we will ever understand why," he said. "Maybe her friends would know better."

Angeline had many friends. Schoolmates and social friends at her part-time job at Foodland filled the Arorangi CICC and St Mary’s Catholic church in Arorangi during a mass held in her memory last Sunday.

"I never knew she had so many friends," he father said. "But I think the message now is that we parents have to be aware that the threat (of suicide) is always there. We have to try and stop it. How to stop it is another question."

Psychiatrist Dr. Vahid Payman in a public talk on Thursday night commented on a question from the audience regarding teenagers and suicide. He said most suicidal cases are born out of a person going through an identity crisis. He said the deeper issues relating to the individual’s identity is part of a stage in human development that expresses itself in early childhood.

"Adolescence is a time when an individual starts exploring his or her identity, trying to understand who he or she is and what life’s purpose is. If society fails to provide the adolescent with meaningful role models, then the adolescent may turn to self-destructive acts, such as drug abuse, vandalism, sometimes even suicide," he said.

"It’s the questions of: Who am I? Where am I going? What is my purpose? So it’s crucial that we develop ‘knowing’ and ‘loving’ qualities which then provides a firm foundation for the individual to identify with," he added.

Personal growth and identity, Dr. Payman said, is a process the individual can acquire "if we develop our knowledge of who we are, and what our purpose in life is."

Someone in the audience said it is true that people often ‘hang’ their identity on someone else or something else -- be it material wealth, position, money or another person. "Once they lose the wealth, or the position, or the money or the other person, there is nothing for them to identify with because they haven’t developed their own identity as an individual person," the woman observed.

So what next for the Cooks?

Taikoko predicts a rise in suicide statistics in the country and is urging youth to come clean and talk about their problems. "There is nothing shameful about talking about ones problems, but our people have to realize suicide is a serious problem, depression is a serious problem, these are conditions that can happen to anyone, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it."

She’s encouraging youth groups to hold workshops in the communities on the topic.

Some Helpful Hints When Meeting With A Suicidal Person

The initial meeting with a person following an attempted suicide is critical. The aim of the meeting is to:

· Establish a relationship with them that is built on trust;

· Understand their situation;

· Work with them to formulate a plan of action.

This approach is geared towards enabling the person to explore their situation so that they may decide what to do about it. A plan of action may only be arrived at after their problems have been identified. It is very important that when you are working with the person you are aware of their resources and supportive relationships. It is useful to establish their level of self-awareness. This is central to the development of interpersonal skills and it helps the person to explore their situation. With some self-awareness the person is more able to question their attitudes, beliefs and motivation and less likely to blame and project their problem onto someone else.

Listening

As a helper it is important to be able to listen to the person. This includes words, tone, pitch, volume and the non-verbal aspects of the communication.

What will you be doing?

Sit squarely, opposite the client with no desk or barrier between you. Have an open body position. Lean forward slightly towards the person. Look at the person appropriately. Relax. Tension and fidgeting show restlessness, lack of interest, impatience. Focus your interest outwards on the person. Not inwards on yourself. You want to convey a warm, empathetic approach; you also need to get reliable information. You can do this by using open questions and being non-judgmental. It is important that direct questions be asked. The risk to the person needs to be assessed.

Ask questions such as:

Counseling people who are suicidal is not an easy matter. The causes are complex and no one has developed strategies to prevention that will work every time. However, enough is known to help people at risk if we can be aware of the crisis and can be in contact with them at the time of their greatest need. It is important that family, friends, colleagues, teachers and counselors recognize the cries for help. It is also important they refer the person to the appropriate place for help.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands News Online.

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