YOUTH SUICIDE IN NEW ZEALAND
Is it time for a change?
The ‘S’ word. Shhh, don’t mention it.
For decades and probably longer, media have been
warned off or shied away from just about anything to do with suicide.
The Ministry of Health’s Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy warns
journalists that talking publicly about it may push some vulnerable
individuals over the edge.
“This phenomenon is usually due to the power of
suggestion and normalisation presented in these media representations,”
But the strategy forgets that for the few that give
in, many, many more are desperately unhappy. And despite the ministry’s
best intentions, the evidence that talking about suicide causes it is
not strong. New Zealand’s rate was soaring well before the media even
started to broach the subject.
Apart from the guidelines, reporting on suicide is
also governed by law. When a death appears to be self-inflicted, the
local coroner is required to investigate. And from one coroner to
another, what they allow the press to report is inconsistent. It is
their decision. Some impose a blanket ban on any reference to the manner
of death, believing families must be spared any further suffering. But
often, families want to speak out – to share their story in the hope of
helping others. It must be time for a change.
The old system of pretending it isn’t there and hoping
it goes away clearly isn’t working. Kiwis, more so than any other
developed population, continue to kill themselves in unprecedented
numbers. And it is mainly our young men. They are four-and-a-half times
more likely to attempt it and about 10 times more likely to be
successful than our young women. Is society failing them?Why are they
brought to the edge and their peers not?
There are loads of questions and too few answers.
Society needs an attitude change, the dialogue has to start. Suicide is
the ultimate selfish act, wreaking devastation and trauma on the family
and friends left behind. Earlier this year, former race relations
conciliator Gregory Fortuin spoke at the funeral of a Whitby teenager.
“I ask you, I beg of you to consider your choices and
the consequences for all your loved ones,” he said before the gathering
that included 300 students from Hutt International Boys’ School.
“You are kidding yourself if you think this is the
end…no matter how dark the night might be, I ask you if you could
honestly look your precious family and friends in the eyes and say this
is an acceptable choice.”
We are all affected, we all care and the vulnerable
need to know that it is okay to ask for help. It is available – at
least, to some. Any psychologist will tell you that mental health is
desperately under-funded in New Zealand. Those at the coalface are over
worked, under paid and reach burnout quickly. The New Zealand Mental
Health Commission says at any point in time 20 percent of the population
has a mental and or behavioural disorder. The government’s National
Mental Health Plan aims to meet the needs of five percent of our youth.
The reality is the funding doesn’t stretch anywhere near that far.
14 August 2004