Annemarie is the magazines editor and regular columnist for the Bay of Plenty Times.

Annemarie Quill: End silence to tackle our suicide epidemic

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Meg Russell keeps some of Brendan's belongings in a box. Photo/file
Meg Russell keeps some of Brendan's belongings in a box. Photo/file

"How do you put your child in a box?"

These words will stay with me forever.

I was with Bay mother Meg Russell.

We were looking through a box of her son's things. Things you might have as a keepsake when your child left home.

Memories most mums have in a box somewhere - like your baby's hospital identification band from the day they were born. Paintings from kindy.

Mother's Day cards in sprawly writing with crayoned hearts. School certificates. A prefect badge, a school blazer, a rugby shirt with their name on, a well-loved copy of Call of Duty.

Meg's son Brendan might have been away at university, or flatting after taking his first job. But he isn't.

At just 18 years old, Brendan Russell took his own life. It is the unthinkable. The unimaginable horror for any parent.

Meg said that after Brendan's death some people avoided her. It's a pain that some people don't even want to try to approach. But Meg wants us to listen. She wants to talk. So does Mount father David Hurn, whose son Kaleb took his own life at 17.

When I spent time with these parents it was clear they love talking about their children, about their traits, little anecdotes.

But no one wants to talk about suicide.

These brave parents are today telling their stories. They are good, loving parents. And now they are heartbroken. Their children chose to leave this world. Their "why?" is our "why?"

More young people are taking their lives than ever before. New Zealand continuously ranks among countries with the worst youth suicide rates. More Kiwis are killing themselves than ever.

Latest statistics on suicide, released this week, showed 579 Kiwis died by suicide in 2015/16. This number is the worst since records began. In the Bay, suicides hit a five-year high, with 35 people taking their own life.

As I write that last paragraph, I think about David Hurn. When I mentioned figures, he sat there listening quietly, and then said, "Bloody statistics." He is right.

Bloody statistics. We spout them off year after year.

This week when I asked Youthline chief executive Stephen Bell to comment on the suicide figures, he said the sad irony is that he could give me a comment from last year. Or the previous year. Or five years ago.

Each year when the statistics come out, we all wring our hands and say, "terrible ... we have to do something". But we don't. Or as Bell says, the things we have been doing clearly are not working because suicide rates are going up.

Two young people are dying every week, and another 20 hospitalised each week.

Imagine if there was some disease outbreak that caused this. There would be an outcry. It would make headlines. Money would be poured into finding solutions.

Yet as David Hurn starkly points out, we put more effort into the Bledisloe Cup than the epidemic, the contagion - as Bell calls it - that is causing our children to kill themselves.
There is no magic vaccine to stop this epidemic.

Yet one thing surely indisputable raised by the parents in our story today is that we cannot remain silent on this topic.

As this paper has commented before, there are strict laws in New Zealand controlling the way media is allowed to report on suicide - stricter than many countries.

These have recently been relaxed slightly but with some cautions remaining. It is good that there has been more recognition of the positive role media could play in suicide prevention.

Bringing people's stories into the open hopefully sparks conversations in our community.

Conversations between parents and their children. Between teens and their mates. Teachers and students.

Almost all in our story today call for "emotional literacy" or "resilience training" to be built into our national school curriculum.

As important as learning to read and write, we all have to teach our kids to deal with life's ups and downs.

I can hear someone reading this thinking, "oh what's wrong with kids, we didn't need to learn resilience when we were young."

If that is what you think, maybe you would have benefited from emotional literacy lessons. We need to soften this Kiwi "harden up" attitude and recognise the strength in admitting our weaknesses.

We are all responsible for our national suicide rate.

We need to look at our communities and make them healthier.

We need to be kind to ourselves and one another and look out for our mates.

We need more funding for good services and resources, and for schools to be able to deliver this in our curriculum.

We need to end the silence.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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