Suicide and crashes drive NZ's youth death figures

By Martin Johnston

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

New Zealand has the second highest death rate for teenagers and young adults among 27 of the world's comparatively high-income countries.

Only the United States has a higher all-causes mortality rate for people aged between 10 and 24.

New Zealand's unfavourable placing at 26th is because of the country's high rates for youth suicide and youth traffic-crash deaths.

The international comparisons are made in a major series of articles on global adolescent health in Britain's Lancet medical journal.

The journal takes a broad definition of adolescence, from age 10 to 24 - some 1.8 billion people, more than a quarter of the world's population - because of scientific evidence that humans' brains aren't fully mature until at least 24.

New Zealand has around 500,000 people aged between 12 and 19.

On the latest Health Ministry statistics available, for 2009, New Zealand still had the highest male youth (15-24) suicide rate in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, at 29 deaths per 100,000.

However this was markedly lower than in 1995, when the rate hit a high of 44.1 per 100,000.

In 2009, 114 people aged 15 to 24, of whom 93 were male, took their own lives.

This month, the Government launched a wide-ranging series of schemes designed to improve youth mental health.

Costing $62 million for four years, the schemes will expand services in schools, online, for families and communities, and in the health system for those with mild to moderate mental illness.

"Although the package is not specifically designed to address youth suicide, it is expected to help," Prime Minister John Key's advisers said.

"The causes of suicide are complex, but depressive disorder is the leading risk factor."

It is estimated that around one in five young people experiences mental health problems.

Currently around 80 per cent of young New Zealanders with symptoms of depression that would benefit from intervention receive no treatment.

In fatal traffic crashes, New Zealand's statistics for 2010 show clearly the disproportionately high number of teens and young adults who die in vehicle accidents: 61 people aged 20 to 24 died, and 52 aged 15 to 19.

The next highest number of deaths by five-year age group was much smaller, at 27, for those aged 25 to 29.

The Government has made changes which are expected to help reduce New Zealand's high adolescent road toll.

Last year, the minimum driving age was increased by one year to 16 and the blood-alcohol limit was reduced to zero for drivers under 20.

Then in February a tougher driving test was introduced for those wanting to progress from learner to restricted driving licences.

The Automobile Association's general manager of motoring affairs, Mike Noon, said yesterday, "We are losing too many young people on our roads."

The AA strongly supported the Government's licensing and youth drink-driving changes, he said.

The tougher test for a restricted licence was expected - based on other countries' experiences - to greatly reduce the risks of these drivers having a crash because candidates would have gained much more pre-test experience behind the wheel than they used to.

Big safety gains could also be made if young people bought - or had bought for them by their parents - cars with higher safety ratings than at present.

"We have this bad habit in New Zealand of thinking, 'They might have a crash, we'll put them in this old dunga'," Mr Noon said.

DEATHS AMONG ADOLESCENTS

Worst rates among 27 comparatively wealthy countries All-causes mortality, ages 10-24

1: United States

2: New Zealand

3: Portugal

Suicide, ages 15-24Female (of 24 countries)

1: Japan

2: South Korea

3: New Zealand

Male

1: New Zealand

2: Finland

3: Ireland

Traffic-related deaths, ages 15-24

Female

1: United States

2: New Zealand

3: Luxembourg

Male

1: Greece

2: Portugal

3: United States

4: New Zealand

Deaths from violence, ages 15-24

Male (of 23 countries)

1: United States

2: Israel

3: Canada

16: New Zealand

Source: The Lancet medical journal

WHERE TO GET HELP

* If it's an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111. Or call Youthline 0800 376 633, Lifeline 0800 543 354, Depression Helpline 0800 111 757, What's Up 0800 942 8787 (noon-midnight).

* Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand has more information. Visit: www.spinz.org.nz.

*The Ministry of Health also offers information at www.depression.org.nz, and a teen specific website at www.thelowdown.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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