Grace Curtis with her Dad, John. Photo: Supplied.

A young woman’s harrowing and powerful call for New Zealand to prioritise mental health services, following the suicide of her Dad, captivates the National Party’s annual conference. Here is Grace Curtis’ speech, published in full with her permission:

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 speaking at the National conference, with MP Matt Doocey and Jason Herrick of AgProud NZ

I want to make it clear, I hold no blame against the individuals within the system and absolutely respect their abilities are limited at the best of times.

But I feel I need to enlighten everyone about the realities families may face following one single suicide. First, to serve as an incentive for everyone here to think about their own health, their families, colleagues and friends, but secondly to highlight the significant reasons why we need to undoubtedly prioritise the mental wellness of New Zealanders.

I unfortunately have experienced a lot of loss in my 23 years. I had been to 11 funerals before Dad died and have been to three since his death, of which most were family members….

But nothing compares to the emptiness, upmost confusion and soul shattering feeling of losing someone to a self inflicted death. The trauma, PTSD and mental distress on the immediate family, friends, extended friends, emergency workers, counsellors, and anyone else even remotely involved can be nothing short of extreme.

My trauma caused my menstrual cycle to completely stop for a year, only to return 32 weeks in a row. My mum is currently seeing a number of specialists for stress-induced illnesses, of which two may become life-threatening. There were numerous occasions my family required emergency services following losing Dad as we were unable to manage the stress and PTSD. On one occasion, there was an ambulance called for me as I again entered a severe level of shock… But it never arrived, instead I was sedated with several sleeping pills.

My family spent weeks taking turns being the person to sedate, and the person being sedated. We also took turns being the next ‘most at risk’ family member. I do hope I’m painting a part picture of the repercussions following one single suicide.

Following this dark period, I became obsessed with suicide prevention and the failings of the mental health system. I was desperate for answers and wanted to help however I could. I reached out to whoever would listen and contacted many members of our Government and media personnel. I was humbled by the immediate responses of Matt Doocey, Barbara Kuriger, Dr Shane Reti, Nicola Grigg, Brodie Kane, Toni Street, Lisa Davies and many others who wanted to help, purely because they cared.

It was shortly after this I began the mental health movement called Cool Change NZ, named after my Dad’s funeral song. The lyrics go, “Now that my life is so prearranged, I think it’s time for a Cool Change.

You may or may not find it surprising that mental health organisations strongly advised against this idea of mine. I was told to wait at least two years before I spoke up. To me, the maths was quite simple, by the time two years was up, that would be well over 1000 deaths by suicide. Meaning another 1000 families silenced, so I decided to break the rules. It all began with a few words I wanted to say, a phone camera and some liquid courage.

Soon enough I was joined by the amazing Tori Wheelans and Georgie Harris who have also suffered the same loss. We talk to people on the ground, we hear and share stories and give a voice to those who need it and source solutions where we can.

I ask the question now, who in our Government can resonate with our pain, and understand the urgency needed to change the system? How many members of our Government have sat with a mother as she grieves the loss of her prepubescent child to suicide? How many have discovered their dad lifeless? How many members of the Government have stopped every part of their work, enjoyment and their life to spend every minute of their day doing everything they can to avoid losing their loved one to suicide, only to be told nothing can be done?

We need to listen, we need to include and we need to validate our people on the ground whether we consider them educated or not. It’s quite simple, really, as long as our suicide numbers remain high, and arguably continue to grow exponentially, the crisis grows at the same rate across the board.

With not enough front line workers in these selected fields, other departments and other entire sectors of the workforce subsequently suffer. One suicide alone can cause numerous people to develop mental health disorders and distress. One suicide alone often causes an ongoing need for numerous front line workers such as police, ambulance staff, doctors and nurses. One suicide alone can chain react a number of other suicides.

I like to think of the health system as a volleyball game. You each get a chance to punt at the ball when it comes near your area but a team is really only as good as it’s weakest link. If one of the players lacks the ability to keep the ball off the ground, everyone on that team loses, regardless of how amazing the other players are.

I see this with our health system. It may be naive of me to say, but I don’t understand why we can’t view health on a spectrum, instead of two separate organs. Our bodies and minds co-exist and are co-dependent, hence, why can’t our health system function this way. I believe our weakest link currently… is the volleyball player who represents our mental health system. But this is not due to a lack of potential or a lack of effort, it’s because the coach hasn’t recognised the importance of the role they play in the team. Quite often the weakest link, if given the right coaching can end up as the MVP.

John and Grace Curtis. Photo: Supplied

My Dad was my best ever friend, he was the rock in our family and we miss him every single minute of every single day. Most of the time we spent together was spent laughing at him laughing at himself. He taught me a lot of things in the 22 years he was my parent. First, he taught me you should only shop around the outer aisles of a supermarket, you’ve got your meat, veg and beer. He also said never go when you’re hungry. I saw first hand why this is the case on the numerous occasions he didn’t follow his own advice.

He also taught me it’s more efficient to leave the heat pump on constantly at a low heat, which I’m not sure is true either as I followed his advice and earnt my flat a $750 power bill.

But what he mostly taught myself and my siblings was to follow, and in some cases fill, your gut and your heart. He filled our guts and our hearts and taught us to stand up for others. You see, like many others embarking on a journey towards better mental health for New Zealand, I am not here for sympathy, I’m not here for pity or praise. I’m here for action.

It is not an appealing road we find ourselves on, so we become solely driven by the idea of preventing others from being on this road… regardless of how well we know them, their background, their views and anything else that makes an individual and individual. We want to protect everyone from our difficult road, so even without any equipment, we try so hard to build a new one.

I want myself, my peers and my wider community to experience pride and promise in our heath system, instead of the much more frequently felt pessimism. Every time I get disheartened within my mission of building a new road for people, and every time I wish I had some decent equipment to help me do that, I remember the lyrics of my Dad’s favourite Tom Petty song, and the lyrics go:

‘I know what’s right, I’ve got just one life, in a world that keeps on pushing me around, I’ll stand my ground and for those that need me here today, I won’t ever, ever back down.’ Thank you.

The Cool Change NZ website is here, and Facebook page is here

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