I have never been convinced by the arguments put forward by psychologists and educators that it is in the best interests of youth not to speak directly about suicide, based on the rationale that knowledge will encourage copy-cat suicides by those who are vulnerable to attempting suicide.

For me this has echoes of the "tell them nothing" strategy that was insisted upon by the fundamentalist minister who happened to be our Minister of Education in the early eighties, Merv Wellington.

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He banned all drug and sex education in secondary schools for fear of encouraging youth to experiment in these forbidden pursuits.


The arguments put forward for such a silence strategy seem to be based on our basic fears about death, sex and drugs.

These three topics are heavily saturated with taboos, beliefs both rational and irrational, dictates, attempts to control others, values, etc.

I am suggesting that our silence on suicide, though well guised with good intentions, hides our fear of death and consequent reluctance to talk openly about it.

Our collective silence "sends the message" to young people that adults cannot be trusted to be honest and real, nor capable of having a "courageous conversation" about death and what really matters in life.

Within the tragedy of every young suicide is a lesson to be learned, or reminded of, by those of us left behind - for those with grief and love in our hearts, and for those of us in the wider community who aspire to live in a supportive and compassionate society.

A suggestion could be to expand the coroner's office to include a team that would examine the context of circumstances and the personal reality for each suicide, and facilitate the necessary support to acknowledge the suicide and retrieve any lesson to be taken from the ashes of the tragedy.

This work could for instance be undertaken in school halls, maraes, churches, community halls or homes as appropriate.

The policy of silence and withholding of information around suicide is too close to an ostrich's "head in the sand" strategy.

The extremely high rate of our youth suicide relative to other comparable societies is surely sufficient proof that our current approach is a spectacular failure.

• Les Gray is a Whangarei psychologist