Annemarie Quill: More than talk is needed

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I was invisible for two years.

I pretty much did not talk to anyone at school from when I was about 14, until 16, apart from the teachers in class and a few other girls.

At the girls' high school I was "sent to Coventry" by a group of girls who used to be my friends. Totally blanked. If I spoke they would look at each other and look around and say, "did you hear something?". If anyone did talk to me, those girls would ask that person, "who are you talking to, there is no one there".

I didn't tell anyone. No one talked much about bullying then. I didn't even think of it as bullying, although I now know exclusion and isolation are classic weapons for bullies. It was hurtful but I tried not to think about it. I read a lot of books - I mean a lot. I would read a book a day. I'd write short stories. I was in my own little world. I had so much time to study that I got great grades. I can thank the bullies for that, and for the fact I am, as an adult, always happy with my own company. When I moved school at 16, I never saw them again.

I was lucky that although school bullies got me, they never got to me.

The bullies got to 13-year-old Danny Fitzpatrick. After enduring constant torment from bullies at his New York school that were once his friends, 13-year-old Danny Fitzpatrick decided his life was no longer worth living.

Before taking his own life, Danny wrote a letter, shared to Facebook, that described his ordeal, NZME reported this week.

"At first it was good," he wrote of his experience in the classroom. But he goes on to explain how his friends turned against him.

"He bullied me," Danny wrote about one of his former friends. "They did it constantly until I went into a fight."

In the note, Danny said his teachers did nothing to stop the abuse, even after he fractured his finger in a scuffle with his bullies.

There are strict laws in New Zealand controlling the way media is allowed to report on suicide - stricter than many countries.

People often ask me 'why aren't you guys writing about bullying and suicide?'

More New Zealanders die by their own hand than they do on the roads, but you don't see the headlines.

Until recently, the media has been limited to report on "sudden deaths" and "no suspicious circumstances" when reporting that someone has died through self-inflicted causes. There can be no reporting of method, with the reasons being to protect vulnerable readers, and prevent potential copycat suicides. However, in June, a reform in the Coroners Act was passed into law enabling media to now report a death as "suspected suicide" before a coroner's inquiry is completed, if the facts support that conclusion. The Justice and Electoral Committee decided to continue to prohibit the reporting of method on advice from the Director General of Mental Health. Yet there was recognition from the director that media could play a positive role in suicide awareness.

It is a minor breakthrough for media. Not because any journalist relishes reporting a suicide. But more such reporting will enable the public to understand the scale of the problem, which to date has been hidden in euphemism and misunderstanding, or not reported on at all.

While media must obey the law, some may question if the relaxing on reporting has gone far enough.

Our strict laws about reporting suicide appear to have had no impact on reducing New Zealand suicide statistics. 564 people died by suicide in the 2014/15 year - the highest number since the provisional statistics were first recorded, prompting Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall to comment that, in spite of the shift in society's preparedness to have a more open conversation about suicide, in the eight years since statistics on suicides have been gathered, "we are not seeing any movement in what is an unfortunate static annual figure".

New Zealand has the second highest rate of youth suicide in the OECD, according to data from the Ministry of Health, and in some areas, like Northland, it has reached "epidemic" levels according to comedian and suicide awareness campaigner Mike King at a community korero in Kaitaia, organised by a teenager who had lost two friends to suspected suicide.

Police confirmed on Thursday that five young males aged between 17 and 25 had died suddenly in Kaitaia in the past 12 weeks. A spokeswoman said all were "sudden death incidents which we have attended, where our investigations lead us to believe the person has taken their own life".

If young people were dying at such levels in an epidemic with physical symptoms, a contagious disease, it would make headlines. There would be an outcry if nothing was done. People would demand to know the causes, and how it could be treated.

While we can never know the reasons for a suicide, and there may of course be youth suicides in which those who take their lives are not being bullied, there seems to be a number linked with bullying. There must be more examination of how far bullying - in all forms - physical and psychological and cyberbullying - contributes to this tragic and often impulsive decision in children.

There is greater effort being put into suicide prevention, including the Ministry of Health's suicide prevention toolkit for District Health Boards and the trial Suicide Mortality Review Committee. In response to the latest suicide figures, the chief coroner promoted greater co-ordination of efforts around suicide prevention from all New Zealanders.

The Ministry of Health promotes an interagency approach "to promote protective factors and reduce risk factors" involving families, whanau, communities, employers, government agencies - and yes, even though we are partially gagged - the media.

As far as youth suicide rates, schools have a big responsibility to identify and deal with any student's trauma at school caused by other students. All schools would claim zero tolerance for bullying, but is this true?

Of course parents, too, have a huge role in talking to their children about bullying, being bullied and how to deal with it. Encourage them to talk to us, listen and guide them while we can. We can tell them that suicide is never the answer. We can tell them not to let the opinion of others determine if we live or die.

But parents cannot stop the bullies and neither can those being bullied.

Parents may often be in the dark, and youth bullying often takes place at school, or with people a young person knows from school.

No one single organisation can prevent suicide on its own. Yet in cases where young people are driven to suicide by bullying at school - as in Danny's case - I believe there needs to be more than talk.

When we drop children off at school the school has a duty of care to protect our children.

The new Government health and safety legislation, which came into effect in April this year, means that schools can be prosecuted for not protecting the heath and safety of students in its care.

This may have caused a flurry of fencing repairs and non slip mats, but a school is now duty bound by law to prevent deaths and injury.

Listed Ministry of Health risk factors for suicide include exposure to trauma, a lack of social support and stressful life events. If bullying is not adequately dealt with at school, one might question the responsibility of the school in preventing a catastrophe if bullying drives a child to kill themselves.

A potential prosecution for those who do nothing to stop a child being bullied - including schools and potentially parents of bullies - should be considered.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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