Dear lonely & helpless: Personal & professional reflections as a minority woman

A guest post by Ai Sumihira

I wrote this because I wanted to see more positive stories of minority women in our community. I do not intend to support or critique any particular political party through my writing. I watched the former justice minister Kiri Allan’s interview the morning I began writing this. Kiri looked confident and radiant on the camera, at least to me. She looked a lot better than when she served as a minister. She looked authentic and charismatic, as ever. Then, she talked about the night that the police caught her.

Kiri said she was planning to kill herself that night. I was lost for words when I heard what she said. Who’d ever thought she was struggling to the point she wanted to die, to be forever away from someone she loved or someone who loved her? Kiri said it was “a decision that I regret for the rest of my life” (1News, 2024).

It was also the decision that saved us from losing Kiri forever.

I wondered if she was offered help and support. I do not support her decision to drive under the influence, but she did what she did because she was planning to hurt herself. I wondered if Police or media personnel supported her during the interaction. It would have only taken a second to ask if she was okay.

Social support: impacts on health outcome, suicides

As far as I remember, Kiri has always been open about her mental health and personal challenges. She shared her experience with conversion therapies, cancer diagnosis and relationship break-up (Manhire, 2023). Kiri is an Indigenous woman who belongs to the LGBTQ community. She has existing mental health conditions. We all know that the Māori community have a much higher suicide rate than non-Māori. Since 2017, the Māori suicide rate has been almost twice as high as that of non-Māori (Bellany, 2022). The suicide rate is also a lot higher in LGBTQ communities. Existing mental health conditions add further risk to the statistics (Statistics NZ, 2022).

But Kiri is courageous. She is a person who can bravely face these challenges. Many of us felt empowered by Kiri’s presence. When she talked about her mental health diagnoses of PTSD, anxiety and depression (New Zealand Herald, 2023) she opened up a safe space for a discussion for the community who needed it.

A day before I watched her interview, I experienced a near-miss assault in my community. I was sent home early as I had cold symptoms. I was minding my business and walking home during daylight hours when a random Pākehā man ran towards me out of nowhere, grabbed my arm, and pushed me into the bus stop bench I was walking by.

He raised his knuckles as though he was about to hit my face. Then, in the nick of time, the bus stopped. As the bus stopped, he stopped, and his left hand, which was squeezing my arm, loosened. In a split second, I decided to hop on the bus. As soon as I got on the bus, I fell to my knees and said, “That guy was trying to assault me!”

But neither the driver nor the passengers said anything. I was offered no support. People on the bus looked away from me. I sat in a bus seat, phoned the police, and made a report. A text message was sent to me with an incident number. It didn’t indicate what the police would do to address my concern.

I managed to escape this random man trying to hurt me, but I felt scared to return to the street where I lived. What if he was still there? What if he finds me again?

About two hours later, I decided to go home. While walking past the local op shop, I saw a few women and a couple of children standing looking worried. One of them was talking on the phone. I asked what happened, and the lady in the shop reported that some random man touched a 5-year-old in the shop. The 5-year-old’s mother was on the phone with the police. The man who touched the 5-year-old was the same man who tried to assault me earlier.

I stood there with rage and helplessness, “Why didn’t the police take my report seriously?” If they had acted on my report immediately, the 5-year-old wouldn’t have suffered. She was probably enjoying the sunny afternoon in an otherwise peaceful neighbourhood. My suffering did not matter to the police officer. I felt I had no control over safety in my neighbourhood.

We all know about this so well. The greatest majority of assault victims are women, women of colour to be exact (Board for the Elimination of Family Violence and Sexual Violence Te Kāwanatanga o Aotearoa & New Zealand Government, 2021). Indeed, this is not the first time that a random man has tried to touch me inappropriately. At times, it seems as though the world does not care much about us. The world does not take us seriously. While men have higher suicide rates, women have a much higher prevalence of mental health challenges (Mental Health Foundation, 2021). The lack of culture and gender-appropriate services is evident (Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, 2018).

It may sound odd in some sense, but social support can cure things. It has been reported that having a sound level of support and connections with friends and family decreases the risk of suicide and addiction, as well as dementia and cardiovascular diseases (Berkman & Glass, 2000; Walker, 2021). For instance, Ball et al. (2022b) report that students who have close family support are less likely to take up binge drinking. The recent Youth 2000 report suggested that adverse life experiences lead to higher engagement with risky behaviours such as binge drinking. The prevalence of binge drinking is also highest for youth who experienced sexual violence. The trend shows that vulnerable young people tend to engage in riskier drinking patterns (Ball et al., 2022a; Fleming et al., 2020).

Young people, disabilities and mental health

I often work with young people who suffer from chronic long-term conditions—the other day, I met a young person who was waiting for a heart valve replacement surgery due to rheumatic fever. How brave, I thought. I have never had to face such a major surgery in my life. Again, we all know that rheumatic heart disease is preventable (Anderson et al., 2019). This young person would not have to suffer from a heart condition if society had been in a better place in the first place.

I have seen transgender clients who had cuts all over their arms. In terms of the mortality rate of 15- 24-year-olds, about three-quarters of deaths were caused by injuries which include both unintentional (49.3%) and intentional injuries (47.6%). More deaths were witnessed in the highly deprived areas (Adams et al.,2022, p. 9). Pākehā youth with a disability showed almost three times higher suicidal thoughts in comparison to their peers without a disability (Roy et al., 2021, p. 47-48). Rangatahi Māori with a disability are more likely to experience financial hardship (51%, Pākehā without disability14%) and forgo healthcare (45%,Pākehā without disability 11%). More than half of Rangatahi with a disability have depressive symptoms, and 45% reported suicidal thoughts.

While we know young people with disabilities display the highest risk of mental health distress and suicide attempts (Roy et al., 2021), there has been a chronic lack of data about them, as well as support for them in our nation. Literally, young people with certain disabilities have been made to be invisible and thus vulnerable.

Kiri stated that, as a Minister, she had to do things that did not align with her fundamental personal values. When you care, some of the things become more difficult to manage (1 News, 2024). I can relate. Obviously, I have never been a politician or a minister, but I know this particular feeling very well. I hate to discharge patients when the plans aren’t solid and thorough. Especially when the patient is facing the risk of family violence or self-harm. I sit helplessly next to them and suffer with them, knowing what it feels like to live in a world that is unsafe and judgemental.

After the incident I experienced, I was definitely shaken by the lack of response and support by the police. If I am so helpless and invisible, would my patient trust me and let me walk alongside their challenges? Am I good enough to be there for others? I do care so much about health equity because I know what it’s like to be treated unfairly. It makes me want to do more, even while I am dealing with my own trauma.

Kiri says, you have to look after yourself to be able to serve the community. She is right. However, I recognise that the window for self-care for minority women is very slim. Considering my position, I don’t know how to escape from racism and genderism completely. I wish I knew the way.

In the moments after the incident, the mother of the 5-year-old gave me her phone number and said, “You can come to visit us anytime if you feel unsafe”. She sent me a message later in the evening to see how I was doing. I am very thankful.

What I know for sure is we are so lucky to be able to hear Kiri’s story today. I am definitely one of those who feels empowered and assured that I am not alone. I look to her courage and appreciate the openness with which she shared her challenges. Thank you, Kiri.

The evidence shows that youth who are considered “vulnerable” tend to engage in activities that support others. For instance, Māori and Pacific Islanders with a disability showed the highest rate of engagement with volunteering activities (Māori with a disability 61%, Pacific with a disability 61%, Pākehā without disability 53 %) (Roy, et al., 2021). This will make my work worthwhile if I get to walk the journey with them. Only the brave know how to support “the lonely and helpless”.

Image credit: Jay Galvin


1News. (2024, January 26). Kiri Allan opens up for first time since leaving Parliament: Breakfast Exclusive [Video]. YouTube.

Adams, J., Duncanson, M., Oben, G., McAnally, H., van Asten, H., Wicken, A., Zhang, X., & Tustin, K. (2022). Indicators of child and youth health status in Aotearoa 2021. New Zealand Child and Youth Epidemiology Service.

Anderson, A., Peat, B., Ryland, J., Ofanoa, M., Burgess, H., Malungahu, G., Wade, J., Spray, J., & Leversha, A. (2019). Mismatches between health service delivery and community expectations in the provision of secondary prophylaxis for rheumatic fever in New Zealand. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 43(3), 294–299.

Ball, J., Crossin, R., Boden, J., Crengle, S., & Edwards, R. (2022a). Long-term trends in adolescent alcohol, tobacco and cannabis use and emerging substance use issues in Aotearoa New Zealand, Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 52(4), 450-471,

Ball, J., Zhang, J., Kim, A., Crengle, S., Farrant, B., Jackson, N. (2022b) Addressing Alcohol Harm in Adolescents. Technical Report 1: Methods and overview of findings. Wellington: University of Otago.

Bellany, P. (2022). Suicide in New Zealand: A snapshot of recent trends. Parliamentary Library Te Pātaka Rangahau.

Berkman, L., & Glass, T. (2000). Social integration, social networks, social support and health. In L. F. Berkman, & I, Kawachi (eds.), Social Epidemiology, Oxford University Press (pp. 186-233).

Board for the Elimination of Family Violence and Sexual Violence Te Kāwanatanga o Aotearoa, & New Zealand Government. (2021). Te Aorerekura: The Enduring spirit of affection.

Fleming, T., Ball, J., Peiris-John, R., Crengle, S., Bavin, L., Tiatia-Seath, J., Archer, D. & Clark, T. (2020). Youth19 Rangatahi Smart Survey, Initial Findings: Substance Use. Youth19 Research Group, The University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction. (2018). He Ara Oranga.

Manhire, T. (2023, 24 July). The Kiri Allan Story. The Spinoff.

Mental Health Foundation. (2021). 25% of New Zealanders have poor mental wellbeing. Mental Health Foundation.

New Zealand Herald. (2023, September 4). Kiri Allan shares new mental health diagnosis, grief she’s experienced and plans for future. New Zealand Herald.

Roy, R., Greaves, L. M., Peiris-John, R., Clark, T., Fenaughty, J., Sutcliffe, K., Barnett, D., Hawthorne, V., Tiatia-Seath, J., & Fleming, T. (2021). Negotiating multiple identities: Intersecting identities among Māori, Pacific, Rainbow and Disabled young people. The Youth19 Research Group, The University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington.

Statistics NZ. (2022). New Zealanders’ mental wellbeing declines. StatsNZ.

Walker, H. (2021). Still Alone Together: How loneliness changed in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2020 and what it means for public policy. Helen Clark Foundation.

One reply on “Dear lonely & helpless: Personal & professional reflections as a minority woman”

Dearest woman. I am so sorry no one on the bus supported you or helped in anyway after such a shocking encounter with pakeha male violence. I am also angry no police support came your way. Even just to help you get home safely! You are obviously someone thoughtful, caring, loving & open. You have a great deal of important experience in a wide range of situations. You absolutely have value & importance as a social worker & in Aotearoa. We can all reflect on how we can support you better & other women from minority cultures. Thank you for your reflection on Kiri Allan’s interview. Many feel just the same. You also matter! Kia kaha, Kia manawanui. You are amazing!

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