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Church member walking length of New Zealand for suicide awareness

Taaffe lost cousin to suicide three years ago; denomination planning emotional health conference

Church member walking length of New Zealand for suicide awareness

Students from the Belfast school near Christchurch came to support Karl Taaffe as he passed through town last week. Taaffe is walking across New Zealand to raise awareness of suicide, which is responsible for more deaths than auto accidents in the nation. [photos: Myke Salmon]

A New Zealander is on a 2,039-kilometer walking journey the length of the country to raise awareness about suicide, which is often a taboo subject, he said.

Karl Taaffe, from the Ilam Seventh-day Adventist Church in Christchurch, began his Dare2Hope initiative after losing loved ones to suicide.

His journey began in Bluff on the South Island of New Zealand and will end at Cape Reniga on the North Island. He walks an average of 30 to 40 kilometers a day and will spend about 75 days on the road. Already, he's walked more than 600 km, having just left Christchurch.

"My journey has been full of blessings as I've connected with so many people, many who've been suicidal. They've greatly encouraged me to continue to the end," Taaffe said.

Taaffe, 31, said he's talked in the streets, churches and community halls about suicide. "I didn't realize how big an issue it really is. We haven't met a person yet who hasn't known someone who committed suicide."

"Suicide is quite a taboo subject and people aren't wanting to speak about it, and if you don't speak about something then it isolates people," Taaffe told national broadcaster TVNZ News.

After a small-town radio station interview, several residents came to the studio to talk with Taaffe about their experiences of having lost loved ones to suicide.

About 10 people in New Zealand commit suicide every week, according to the Office of the Chief Coroner. In 2009, the figure was 541 suicides, more than were killed in car accidents. Of those, 401 were males and 140 females. That's approximately one out of every 7,000 people taking their lives each year.

Taaffe said it was in December 2007 that the tragic reality of suicide struck home like never before. "My 17-year-old cousin took her life, leaving my family and a community devastated," he said. "I'm sure many can relate to my experience and have asked, 'What could have been done?'"

Health experts say untreated depression is often a leading cause of suicide.

"Although suicide is very difficult to predict, a profound sense of hopelessness and helplessness pervades the mental attitude of the person, and likelihood is increased when the person is not receiving adequate treatment," said Dr. Carlos Fayard, an assistant director of the Adventist world church's Health Ministries department and an associate professor of psychiatry at Loma Linda University School of Medicine.

Fayard said depression may be the result of factors such as medical conditions, genetic vulnerability, and external stressors, such as a serious losses, complications from the use of mind-altering substances or a feeling that "there is no way out" of a financial predicament.

The Adventist world church next October will address mental health issues in an international conference entitled Emotional Health & Wholeness: A Biblical Worldview in Practice. "[Our church] has proclaimed for many years that the goals of education should be the harmonious development of the physical, mental, spiritual, and social dimensions in the human experience ... and yet, issues related to emotional health have lagged behind," said Fayard, the conference's organizer.

"Local churches, schools, clinics, and hospitals could bring about healing by developing programs that are mindful of the blessings found in God's word, and reach out to those in need of emotional healing where they serve, while at the same time remain on the cutting edge of scientific knowledge, and 'best practice' models of service delivery," Fayard said.

In New Zealand, Paul Rankin, Health Ministries director of the Adventist Church's New Zealand Pacific Union, said he supports mental health awareness programs and has committed NZ$500 in support of Taaffe's walk across the nation. He said he sees Dare2Hope as an important ministry for those who see no hope in life.

Taaffee is scheduled to complete his walk on January 28. For more information on his journey, as well as resources on mental health, visit