Six fewer suicides but figures still shock

By Lydia Anderson

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Chief coroner Neil MacLean. Photo / File
Chief coroner Neil MacLean. Photo / File

Ministry of Justice figures from June 2012 to June 2013 show 541 suicides in New Zealand, including 34 in Northland, compared with 26 the year before.

The national number of suicides was six fewer than the previous year but still represented more than 12 people per 100,000 population.

Chief Coroner Neil MacLean released provisional figures which show young Maori men are still represented more than any other group.

But Northland District Health Board chief executive Nick Chamberlain said there were signs of a shifting trend in 2013 and the statistics did not reflect a big drop in Northland suicides between January and June.

"It is very pleasing to report a 50 per cent drop in the suicide rate for Northland in that time. Of the 34 suicides in the past 12 months, two-thirds occurred in 2012," Dr Chamberlain said. "We are really pleased to be tracking downwards, particularly for Maori."

The decrease in Maori suicides in Northland was greatest in the past six months, with two compared to 10 in the last half of 2012.

Dr Chamberlain said Northland's response to the suicide problem had included establishing the multi-agency Social Well Being governance group and various whanau and youth resilience projects.

Silent killer

As a country we shy away from talking about it, yet we lose about 10 Kiwi lives every week to suicide.

The tragic phenomenon claims people from all walks of life regardless of age, ethnicity or income.

It's a lesson mother-of-one Maria Bradshaw has learnt all too painfully. In 2008 her 17-year-old son Toran unexpectedly took his own life, leaving a gaping, unfillable hole in her world.

But instead of being enveloped in community support, Ms Bradshaw says "people just walked away".

"For the vast majority, I think that suicide is still shrouded in all those myths and taboos, it's spooky and scary and people just don't know what to say."

Parents of her son's friends found it too painful to discuss with her.

Before Toran's death, Ms Bradshaw says she had never thought about the reality of suicide.

"I had no idea that children kill themselves because their hearts are broken through relationship break ups, because they're scared of being in debt for the rest of their lives, because they're bullied. I just didn't know, and God I wish I had."

Ms Bradshaw jointly-founded the charity Community Action on Suicide Prevention Education & Research (CASPER), taking Toran's story public as a way to help families and young people learn how to combat suicide.

The grim toll

Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean's latest report on suicide rates, released last month, shows 541 Kiwis committed suicide in the last year. That was six fewer than the previous year, but still the average has remained stubbornly stable since 2007.

Young men and women, farmers, isolated elderly, the recently redundant, Maori, gay New Zealanders - all are represented in the statistics.

Suicides among women and girls increased from 142 in 2011/12 to 153 in 2012/13. Among men and boys, the number fell from 405 to 388.

The highest suicide rate was among men aged over 85 - which Judge MacLean said came as a surprise.

Suicide among elderly was sometimes difficult to identify, particularly in cases of "slow suicide".

"That's the person that's starving themselves, refusing their medication, simply giving up the will to live. It merges sometimes with euthanasia and that's a very grey area."

Maori youth suicide has dropped, with suicides among those aged 10 to 20 down from 46 to 26.

Ministry of Health 2010 suicide statistics show New Zealand ranks mid-range against other OECD countries for male suicides, but in the top third for females.

Youth suicide rates also rank highly, with males fourth-highest and females second-highest in the developed world.

Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand development manager Moira Clunie says while this year's national decrease is encouraging, it is important to view the latest figures in the context of long-term trends, not in isolation.

What can we do?

The way forward is not clear cut, but the Government is attempting to tackle the problem.

Earlier this year it announced its New Zealand Suicide Prevention Action Plan 2013-2016, promising an improvement in suicide prevention services, and more support for families and communities coping with loss of loved ones.

Among the new measures is a pilot programme to support small communities which lose a major industry, as well as a small social media pilot around suicide prevention, and increasing information on tackling cyber-bullying.

Judge MacLean says New Zealand's seemingly immovable suicide rate "almost defies explanation".

He supports the Law Commission's review into rules around media reporting of suicide, saying current restrictions are based on fear of copycat deaths, which he does not believe is a significant factor in New Zealand.

Under the current law, media outlets cannot publicise any information about a death which appears to be self-inflicted until an inquiry is completed - unless the coroner gives permission.

If a coroner finds a death was suicide, media can publish the person's name, address, occupation, and the fact the coroner found the death was self-inflicted. Other details can only be reported if the coroner is satisfied such publication is unlikely to be detrimental to public safety.

The review is due to be completed early next year.

Ms Clunie says based on current research, it is important to err on the side of caution when reporting on suicides. But more stories on people recovering from suicidal feelings could have a positive effect.

Her view on completed suicide reports is at odds with CASPER founder Ms Bradshaw, who says Kiwis need to hear individual stories, like that of her son Toran, for the message to really hit home.

"It's much safer and much more comfortable to think, 'Gosh, that's awful, but it's not something I have to worry about, this only happens to other people'."

Research linking reporting of suicides with increased suicide rates is "laughable", she says, and only shows correlation, not causation.

For grieving families, telling their stories can prove cathartic.

"It just helps us to make meaning out of this terrible thing that's happened and it also gives us a mission and something to do - a reason for carrying on.APNZ

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE

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