It was about three years ago now that, as part of my job at the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, I took stock of the resources available for the public around suicide prevention.
Knowing that gay men are a high-risk population at increased risk of suicide, I was dismayed to find only a single A4 fact sheet that hadn’t been updated since 2005.
For Maori, who are also a high-risk population group for suicide, a new resource and programme was launched in 2009 called Te Whakauruora. It looked at the phemonenon of suicide, mental distress and recovery from an indigenous perspective, and from that resource grew a grass roots training programme for people in communities.
I was present at the launch of this resource by Minister Tariana Turia at the Foundation’s 2009 conference, Culture and Suicide Prevention in Aotearoa, where I was conducting video interviews with several of the key presenters.
During the lead-up to this conference, there were some who were sceptical at best and hostile at worst to the idea of a whole conference being dedicated to this topic. Given that figures at the time showed the Maori suicide rate to be close to double that of the general population, I was not alone in finding such opposition preposterous and offensive.
The naysayers were ignored, and $2.6 million was allocated in the 2009/10 financial year by the Ministry of Health to Maori suicide prevention initiatives, out of a total budget of $14.6 million.
Given that there had been no proactive clamour to put aside even $50 to update a fact sheet for gay men, who have been identified over four decades worth of international evidence as being a high-risk group for suicide, I decided to do something – and the project that was to become the feature-length documentary Men Like Us was born.
Opening up to other gay man about my experience of bipolar disorder had released the floodgates; I found myself having more meaningful conversations than I’d ever had in my life. Men who had been hiding things for years suddenly shared their life journeys with me, their lowest moments, and most importantly how they had overcome them.
Some of these men were people I had known for years, and I was sad that I was finding out these things for the first time. Are our conversations and concern for others so shallow that the very fabric of our lives are not considered important enough for discussion?
The refrain often heard when someone dies by suicide is that those closest had “no idea”.
I know from personal experience that you don’t just wake up one day and decide you want to kill yourself. Inside are twisted balls of barbed wire that magnify your negative feelings to the point where you feel you can no longer cope, and the people in your life would be better off without you.
Until talking to other men about these feelings, I didn’t realise how common they were, and seeing the strength in others allowed me to the see the strength that I had within myself.
I set out to find nine men from a broad range of ages and backgrounds who had life experience in a number of issues that are either unique to gay men, or affect gay men in unique ways: bullying, HIV, male identity and sport, spirituality, body image, bereavement, aging, migration, and cultural alienation.
The youngest man I interviewed was 24, and the oldest 78. In a series of interviews conducted over the course of 2011, these men generously gave of themselves in an honest, candid and raw manner over several hours of free-flowing discussion. They allowed me access to their photo collections in order to illustrate their stories.
While each of their stories are compelling on their own, the combined effect of seeing them together as a thematic tapestry was even stronger.
Seeing that a 24-year-old young Maori man from Kawerau shared the same insecurities and fears as 78-year-old Pakeha man who had been married with children was a powerful statement about the idea of community, and how it does in fact exist. But it’s up to us to keep those ties of connection alive.
I hope this film can be the start of a similar, informal grass roots movement where we find out more about the men we see every day at social events, bars, parties and even on our dating apps.
Because we can and do survive, and even thrive. Sometimes we just need a little encouragement.