Yesterday was International Suicide Prevention Day. I’d never heard of it before, until a friend liked a link on Facebook. It resonated because two teens have recently committed suicide in the town where I live and, like many people who work closely with teenagers, I found myself deeply distressed by it.
I was helping a small group of Year Ten girls prepare speeches for their English Assessment last week when the conversation briefly touched the subject of the funerals. I didn’t not want them to talk about the suicides necessarily; I just wanted them to get on with their work at that particular time. I was preparing myself to be a professional adult and steer the discussion back to their work, when I heard something I found really disturbing:
‘Don’t worry, Miss. We know we’re not allowed to talk about it.’
‘Suicide. Nobody’s allowed to talk about it.’
‘Teachers. Parents. Everyone.’
‘It might give us ideas.’
I was perplexed. Can’t talk about suicide? Really?
Later, I asked a couple of colleagues.
‘That’s right. They might find out how to do it themselves. Suicide is contagious.’
Ok. Now, this really needs to be questioned.
Let’s look at the statistics from the Ministry of Health, as they kinda speak for themselves.
The 15–24 year age group had the highest suicide death rate in 2012 (23.0 per 100,000 population), followed by the 25–44 year age group (15.8 per 100,000).
Before the mid-1980s, the age groups with the highest suicide rates were 45–64 years and 65 years and over. However, a progressive decline in the rates for these two groups and an increase in the two younger age groups saw a swap in relative positions in the middle of the 1980s. The increase for the 15–24 year age group was especially sharp (from 10.8 deaths per 100,000 population in 1982 to 23.3 per 100,000 population by 1992). From the late 1990s, the 15–24 year age group’s suicide rate steadily declined. However, the 2012 rate (23.0 deaths per 100,000 15–24 year population) increased compared with 2011.
Figure H3.3 – Age-specific suicide mortality rates, by age group, 1972–2012
source: Ministry of Health Note: Rates per 100,000 population
This is the most recent graph I could find, published this year in the 2016 Social Report by the Ministry of Social Development, New Zealand. Look at the pale blue columns. The graph clearly shows that we’re letting down our youth in New Zealand.
Later in the same report we’re told:
A comparison with international suicide death rates for 34 OECD countries during 2009 to 2012 shows that New Zealand’s mortality rate was 13th highest for males and 5th highest for females. Korea had the highest male suicide mortality rate (37.1 deaths per 100,000 population) and female suicide mortality rate (16.3 deaths per 100,000). New Zealand’s overall suicide rate is similar to the OECD median (11.8 deaths per 100,000).
New Zealand’s youth (15–24 years) suicide rate was the highest among the 34 OECD countries, ahead of Finland for males and Korea for females.
It’s hard being a teen anywhere in the world at the moment. In New Zealand a quarter of our children live under the poverty line. Minimum wage is set well below a living wage. Parents who perform lower paid jobs, often have to work long hours and even multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. Even then, some are currently unable to provide a roof over their children’s heads. Family homelessness has reached crisis point in New Zealand, but our government is so out of touch with reality, or pretending to be, that little is being done to help them. It’s frustrating, embarrassing, and utterly heartbreaking.
On top of that, over 5,000 people have just been made really ill by polluted water reaching their taps in Havelock North. That means we’re not even providing clean drinking water to our people at the moment. How about that for making people feel undervalued and mistreated?
I don’t want to get political in a blog post about suicide, but all of this is hardly conducive to a happy home life, and the future must seem pretty bleak to a vast number of our youth.
They’re also under pressure with social media, drugs and alcohol, never mind the usual peer pressure nonsense. Seems to me that dating apps like Tinder and Yellow are hugely corrosive to a young person’s self-esteem. I can’t imagine having to deal with all the pressures of being a teen nowadays.
Maori are particularly effected it seems. I had the privilege of watching NZ comedian Mike King talk to the teenagers at my school about his struggle with depression and substance abuse. It was brilliant. He was both hilarious and deeply honest. His talk was part of his work touring schools and sharing his story, aiming truths to Maori boys in particular about being too staunch to seek help. He encouraged them to talk and at the end he invited any of the students who wanted to seek help to stay behind and thus the school councillors were able to reach many students who would have otherwise remained silent. Talking about it went pretty well on that occasion.
All this has prompted me to participate in a 10 day photo challenge on Instagram. It began on the 1st of September and ended yesterday with a ‘hand on heart’ selfie and ran under the hashtag #LiveForTomorrow. Accepting this challenge, even though I’m probably about twenty years too old for it, has made me think about my own experiences and attitudes about mental illness and suicide. Each day I posted a picture according to the prompts. They triggered memories of my how I survived dark, difficult times. I recalled the loss of a friend to suicide in my teens, and I realised the impact his death had on my life subsequently. It’s also made me resurrect this blog. This blog is a platform through which I am able to express myself (the internet is excellent like that). So, my plan now is to write a series of blog posts about Suicide. Nobody can stop me talking about it.
How is NOT talking about suicide working for you, New Zealand?