Tragic youth deaths deserve coverage wherever they occur

By Phoebe Clifford

King's College has been coming under intense media scrutiny after a student death, which comes on top of three others at the elite school.

Perhaps it is only natural that the death of a young person in tragic circumstances warrants such media attention. Then consider this - in the past year, 13 young people have died in the town of Kawerau. How many of us knew that?

The media interest surrounding King's College is, of course, inevitable.
King's is a privileged school and the parents of the children who attend it are often high-profile New Zealanders.

When the Prime Minister is a parent, media coverage is unavoidable.

However, I believe the media are missing the point. A large majority of the articles I have read covering this tragic event have focused on name-dropping, on emphasising the King's connection and the supposed school "culture". Instead, we should be looking at the larger issues.

Thirteen deaths in Kawerau last year occurred through unnatural circumstances - 10 more than at King's. Surely this should have alerted us to the fact that this is a national issue, not limited to one school.

It should have, except for the fact that the media have been abnormally quiet.

The Bay of Plenty District Health Board said most of the dead were males aged from 16 to 21, similar ages to the King's deceased.

So where is the coverage? There isn't the same high profile, that's certain, but is that an excuse for ignoring the issues surrounding the Kawerau deaths? I don't think so, and I am ashamed to think that we live in a society where wealth and privilege also mean more interest and attention.

It seems that the difference lies in the fact that Kawerau is a small town, struggling with the effects of the recession as well as many other issues. Perhaps this is the problem. Instead of these deaths standing out as the tragedies that they truly are, people have pushed them into the same box as all the others - someone else's problem.

This is, however, as a spokeswoman for the Bay of Plenty District Health Board said, a horror story, tragically affecting people's lives.

Michelle Elliott of Kawerau buried her 17-year-old son in October and last month was hit by the death of a nephew. With other residents, she has been sent reeling, and said: "There was nobody to help families. There's a need in this town."

Yet it would be unfair to ignore the efforts that are being made to change the situation. Behind the scenes the health, justice, social development and education ministries have set up a joint taskforce to tackle youth suicide.

Called the Core Clinical Committee, it aims to be a one-stop shop for parents and youths in need, said head Kevan McConnell. Last month, Kawerau local Danielle Hayes, winner of New Zealand's Next Top Model, drew attention to the deaths. Many of the victims were friends of hers. This has helped the situation, but it is not enough.

So yes, more help and awareness is needed in places like Kawerau. But the overt interest the media has in King's College is not fair either.

The attention the school has received portrays it in a way that is both disrespectful to those who have lost their lives and unfair to those who attend the school now.

Instead of blaming it on the perceived culture of the school, we should be looking at our national culture. Of course there are issues, but that does not mean every student who attends King's College should receive the same label.

The media need to have a long hard look at themselves and honestly judge whether the coverage of the deaths at King's College has been because of the tragic losses, or because of where they occurred.

It is critical we realise this is a nationwide issue, not limited to one section of society, and people need to stand up and do something not only in places of privilege, but all over the country. Kawerau deserves our attention, and people in positions of power need to realise this before it is too late.

No more young lives should be lost due to circumstances that, by and large, are under our control. Regardless of where these people live or go to school, something needs to change, and it needs to change nationwide.

Phoebe Clifford, Year 11, St Cuthbert's College

- NZ Herald

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