Kāpiti teenagers share harrowing stories of hardship, violence and salvation

On the quiet Kapiti Coast, just north of Wellington, an ordinary urban street is abuzz with foot traffic heading in and out of the town’s iconic Kāpiti Youth Support (KYS) building. Inside, lives are being saved.

A non-profit centre aimed at kids aged 10 to 25, KYS offers free health and social services as a youth one-stop shop.

For the past 22 years, CEO Raechel Osborne – a finalist at this week’s Women of Influence Awards – has been committed to running the organisation. And she will tell you it is needed more than ever.

Post-lockdown, KYS saw a staggering 300 per cent increase in demand for primary mental health services. But despite bursting at the seams, the centre has gone without an increase in government base health funding since 2005.

This week, they called on Minister of Health Andrew Little to deliver an immediate increase in funding, or risk turning away young people like Kesia, Jacob and Lyric. The trio spoke to Cloe Willetts about their need for the centre, and what it really means to be part of the country’s most vulnerable population.

Lyric, 18

There is nothing more important in this world to Lyric than being a good mum to her baby boy. The teen may have battled suicidal thoughts at times and she has a colourful past, but the struggles only fuel her desire to give James, aged seven months, exactly what he needs.

“I went through Child, Youth and Family (now Oranga Tamariki) when I was born and again when I was 11,” recalls Lyric, 18, who finds it hard making eye contact with strangers until she trusts them. “I never had many people listen to how I felt when I was little and I don’t want James growing up like I did. I don’t want him to be passed around, and I don’t want to be a drug mum.”

Lyric was 14 the first time she thought about ending her life. “People let me down and when I feel suicidal I just want to leave. I don’t feel like that now, but it upsets me thinking about it,” she says.

“I used to be naughty and drink and stay out really late. But then I got a job at a supermarket and stopped because I was working early in the morning. And I was making money to spend on shoes.”

Born around gang culture in Porirua and raised in Rotorua for 13 years, Lyric was 16 when she became pregnant to a boyfriend she ran away with. Shortly after, the young mum found out he cheated. She was distraught.

Lyric’s Kāpiti-based nan bought her a one-way bus ticket the next day, bringing the broken teen in to live with her. When Lyric would not get out of bed and stopped eating, her nan took her to KYS. “They helped with doctors, nurses, counsellors and my social worker, who does everything for me,” Lyric says. “I’m dyslexic, so they filled in forms to enrol me in a teen mums’ school an hour away, which has a daycare. We drop the baby off and class is metres away, so if they’re upset they’ll come and get us. And I get a ride there and back.”

Five days a week, Lyric attends the school, on top of working a couple of afternoon supermarket shifts. “When I came here I had nothing. No NCEA levels or licence, now I have my learners.”

According to Lyric, who lives with her current partner and his family, not having the on-going support of a youth service would be life-altering. “I’d probably be the useless person I was, out drinking and stuff,” she shrugs. “I don’t drink now and quit smoking.”

Things like throwing James a first birthday party make Lyric smile, softly. “I want him to have those things I didn’t, like the big birthday and heaps of clothes and shoes,” she enthuses. “When I’d ask for something, my family was too broke to buy it and so they’d either steal it or you steal it. I don’t want my son to be like that and so I try my best. I like motherhood; I have a purpose in life.”

Kesia, 18

South African-born Kesia was 13 the first time she sat down with her mother to talk about budgeting. Only, she wasn’t on the receiving end. Just a year into high school and already used to the insecurity of empty cupboards and unpaid bills, Kesia was giving her mother suggestions on how to better manage her money.

“Growing up, most of the time my mum was single, or when she had a partner he’d only contribute a bit of money,” says the 18-year-old, who moved to New Zealand at 4. “Once I started getting part-time jobs, I’d let her borrow money off me.”

For much of her life, Kesia moved between homes of aunties and uncles; sometimes with her mother and sometimes without. “It definitely takes a village to raise a child,” says the bubbly teen, who first enrolled at KYS for its free medical services. “I was 16 and my sister was 15 when we had a breakdown in the family and Mum left. She wasn’t fit enough to have us.”

Part of living with other family meant paying $60 a week in rent. “I was still in school but had a part-time retail job on a Sunday. During school holidays I got two,” Kesia says. “I only did six hours, on minimum wage, and had to pay for my car insurance and gas. My sister and I also liked watching Netflix, so went halves on that. Rent on top would’ve been intense.”

With the help of KYS, Kesia signed up for the Youth Payment through Work and Income, a benefit for young people aged 16 or 17, who do not have support from their parents. With it came a green card, which was credited each week and usable at pharmacies and supermarkets.

“I call myself my sister’s mum,” she admits. “No one got us things like shampoo and conditioner, or tampons, it was our responsibility. I’d use the green card and make my sister come with me because I didn’t want to go by myself!”

A Youth Coach often phoned them to check in. “The biggest thing I struggled with was that none of my friends were going through what I was,” Kesia shares. “Here I was, paying rent while I was in college and none of them were, so I’d get really upset. But doing it alone would’ve been worse.”

When she was offered a university scholarship, Kesia turned it down to work. “Some people were mad but I wanted to focus on working and building that stability,” she explains. “And I couldn’t imagine living in Wellington and leaving my sister by herself.”

KYS helped the determined young woman secure a job as an office administrator at a local building company. “I flatted for a bit but it was too expensive, so now I’m back living with my aunty and uncle and can save some of the money I earn,” Kesia says. “I have my car and job, which is a good role because it opens opportunities for the future, and makes me feel important. At the moment it’s a really good place to be and I feel quite happy.”

Jacob, 17

Jacob Walker is a well-spoken teen, with good grades, great friends and plans to study a Bachelor of Health next year. But six months ago, the 17-year-old was on the brink of suicide.

“I’ve always struggled with my mental health and, in the typical Kiwi way, you bottle it up,” says Jacob, who was diagnosed with depression in May. “It got to the point where I met a supportive friend down the beach and just had a complete mental breakdown down. I was crying and vented for like five hours straight.”

Afterwards, the year 13 student felt guilty. “I realised it really helped talking about it, but I didn’t want that feeling of putting it on my friend, who was already struggling,” Jacob tells. “I went to my school counsellor and asked to see a nurse to help figure it out. She referred me to one at KYS.”

The nurse noticed Jacob needed more than a listening ear. When he was diagnosed with depression by one of the centre’s doctors, it explained a lot. “Over the last few years, I lacked motivation to get up out of bed, exercise, go to school or eat. I haven’t even had the motivation to live,” Jacob admits. “It sounds bad, but I just couldn’t get there.”

Loved ones never considered the polite and friendly boy was suffering. “I thought no one in my family had depression until I recently found out my uncle has for a long time,” he says. “Our family doesn’t really talk about it. It’s more, ‘How was school?’ and I’d say, ‘yeah, good’.”

Through counselling at KYS, Jacob began to unravel his feelings. “I’m an only child and none of my cousins live nearby, so I’ve never had anyone at family gatherings or dinners to hang out with. I’ve always been forced into adult conversations,” he tells. “It caused me to be more mature and I didn’t understand the impact of all that until I started talking.” Jacob also struggled with not ever knowing his dad.

“I was the man of the house and taught myself everything, like how to shave. I knew my mum was already stressed out being a single parent, so I didn’t want to put more pressure on her.”

When asked where he would be without intervention, Jacob is brutally honest. “I’d be dead, for sure,” he says. “It’s just a fact I wouldn’t be here or I’d be teetering on the edge. I wouldn’t be in the position of accepting who I am, which I’ve just started.”

Part of where Jacob sees himself now is helping others. “My big passion is the support of mental health in marginalised communities,” he enthuses. “Coming from a part of Kāpiti that’s predominantly non-Pākehā, I see the effects mental illness has on the community I’ve grown up in.” He plans on majoring in Health Psychology at university, incorporating Māori and Pasifika Studies.

“Coming to KYS helped so much. Talking and getting it out in a place where other people can listen is super therapeutic for me,” Jacob says. “I think people refuse to acknowledge the problem that is mental health in the youth community.

“They see it as just a phase, but it’s not. We are people, who live with this struggle every single day.”

Where to get help:
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youth services: (06) 3555 906
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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