Once again New Zealand's suicide rate has hit a new high, rising 2.5 per cent to 685 for the year to June 30. And once again we are casting far and wide to find someone, or something, to blame.
The most popular target is the Government, of course. It should be doing something, although just what that something might be isn't clear. Certainly it is incumbent upon the Government to fund and provide effective and accessible mental health services, and the current Government, to its credit, is striving to do that. We will have to wait and see whether the funding it has promised will be spent effectively, and the suicide rate over the next 12 months will not be the only measure of that. There is little argument, however, that mental health services in their broadest sense have been allowed to languish, and the rate at which New Zealanders are killing themselves might well be one symptom of that.
Other factors have been trotted out once again, however, from films and television depicting suicide, thereby prompting some of the more vulnerable to end their lives, to social media and online bullying. To that we might add the demise of the nuclear family, a process that began in earnest two generations ago, and has been carefully nurtured, to a greater or lesser extent, by every government since.
And of course there is the scourge of drugs and alcohol, a factor that one suspects will not be ameliorated if the use of cannabis is legalised. Whatever those who favour legalisation might argue, there is absolutely no doubt that the 'recreational' use of cannabis, even if to a lesser extent than other drugs, particularly methamphetamine, is not conducive to robust mental health, or anything else that is positive, especially amongst the young.
What can we do about reducing the harm done by drugs and alcohol, and the admittedly unquantified role they play in suicide? Whatever the answer to that might be, it most certainly does not lie with politicians. No one is going to prohibit alcohol, and whatever result we get from next year's referendum, vulnerable people will continue to destroy their potential with cannabis. The best news, perhaps, at least in Te Hiku, is that a serious and seemingly effective effort is being made to address the issue of family harm, which without doubt is another significant factor in the suicide rate.
It is a little too soon perhaps to expect Whiria te Muka, the partnership between the police and iwi, to deliver evidence showing beyond question that this new approach to policing, and changing people's behaviour, is working, but the strong impression is that it is achieving what it was designed to achieve, not least by empowering victims and encouraging perpetrators to change. There is good reason to hope that Whiria te Muka will make a real difference in the Far North, although the underlying issues of poverty, unemployment, lack of education, drug and alcohol abuse will continue to create perpetrators and victims, many of them children, alike.
If there is one thing the Government can do it might be to look at Denmark, where the suicide rate fell from 16.2 per 100,000 population in 2005 to 12.8 in 2016, still higher than New Zealand's 12.1 but significantly reduced all the same. (The United States' rate, incidentally, is 15.3 (27th), and Australia's 13.2 (39th). Ours ranks 49th). There may be little to be learned from international comparisons, however.
According to the 2019 World Population Review, the leading cause of suicide around the world is terminal illness. That cannot possibly be the case in New Zealand, given that the toll here includes large numbers of young people and children, for whom terminal illness is obviously not an issue. It might well be amongst older folk who take their lives though, as, we are told, is the loss of paid employment later in life, but the statistics tell us only how many people have died, not why.
Given that this country is very much a welfare state, one might expect that the temptation to commit suicide would be markedly reduced, but that doesn't seem to be the case either. Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria currently have official suicide rates of 4.7, 3 and 1.9 per 100,000 population respectively, the WPR pointing out that the prospect of terminal illness does not loom as large in those countries as it might in wealthier, less troubled societies.
The highest suicide rate in the world is currently in Lithuania, with a staggering 31.9 deaths per 100,000, while in Antigua and Barbuda it just 0.5.
The writer has absolutely no knowledge of what factors might influence suicide rates around the world, but it is unlikely that the answer in this country lies with the Beehive, despite the faith that some seem to have in politicians. Black Power life member Denis O'Reilly was quoted last week as saying there had been nine sudden deaths, all suspected suicides, within the broader gang fraternity in Hawke's Bay in the last five months, and calling on the Government to do something about that. Do what exactly? It beggars belief that anyone could possibly look to the Government to 'do something' about whatever it might be that Mr O'Reilly fears is driving gang members to take their own lives.
In Northland, anyone who wants to defend the effectiveness of whatever it is that they might be doing could point to the fact that the suicide rate in this region fell almost 20 per cent, from 41 to 33, in the 12 months to June 30, but we don't (yet) hear anyone taking credit for that. And nor should we.
As is so often the case, the only real answer lies with families and communities. If Mr O'Reilly is concerned about the rate at which those in the broader gang fraternity in Hawke's Bay are ending their lives he should be looking at the gang lifestyle rather appealing to politicians.
If the rest of us want to address this scourge we should first be insisting on more effective means of addressing the underlying factors, like drug and alcohol addiction, and more fundamentally the hopelessness that so often leads to those addictions. But we, in a country where, perhaps more than anywhere else on Earth, everyone really does have opportunities to lead happy, fulfilling lives, we should be asking why it is that so many of us shun those opportunities, on our own behalf and more importantly on behalf of our children.
It is beyond tragic that young New Zealanders particularly, whose lives have barely begun, should see suicide as the answer to the problems they clearly regard as insurmountable. Politicians can and must create an environment where we all have the chance to live the best lives we can, but at the end of the day it is up to us to take advantage of those opportunities, and to ensure that those around us, especially our children, are as well equipped as they can possibly be to do so.
None of us can get rid of drugs and alcohol, educational failure, welfare dependency and the other curses that blight so many lives from society as a whole, but we can banish them from our homes. And when we do that the suicide rate will fall, at least amongst those for whom life should, and can, be full of promise.