Warning: This article discusses suicide, self-harm, and other mental health problems. If you need help, contact Lifeline on 0800 543 354 or text 4357 (HELP).
A first-year student who took her own life in the halls of residence at Lincoln University on the first day back after the holidays had been planning to die for months - and deliberately hid her mental health struggles and anguish from everyone she knew.
Coroner Mary-Anne Borrowdale has ruled Zoe Louise Luffman’s death was a suicide - and has issued a strong reminder to Kiwis about how to get help in similar situations - or seek help for family and friends they are worried about.
The 18-year-old from Marlborough was found in her dorm room at Lincoln University on Monday, July 18, 2022, several days after she died.
Coroner Borrowdale said during high school the teen had suffered from anxiety and had been self-harming.
Luffman had also had some suicidal thoughts but was considered to be at low risk of suicide after “strong” supports were put in place following a referral to her local community mental health service.
She was thought to be doing well when she started university, where she was enrolled in a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in ecology.
She had intended to take a gap year after high school - during which she had “demonstrated a commitment to climate action” but pandemic-related border closures stymied that plan.
She was “nervous but excited” to start university.
Coroner Borrowdale said much of the information about Luffman’s life in the lead-up to her death came from her own diary which she wrote in most days.
Initially at university, she was feeling “engaged and positive”.
But March her mental health began to decline.
“She appears to have kept this episode from her parents,” said Coroner Borrowdale.
“In late March Zoe diarised having become highly anxious, and that she felt besieged by ‘demons’.
“Zoe’s diary records explicit suicidal ideation. She wrote of not wanting to be around anymore, of ‘needing’ to die, and of being on the precipice of dying.
“(She) wrote of feelings of unworthiness and numbness.”
Luffman told her friend she was having panic attacks and reached out to a counsellor.
The friend remained worried and reported her concerns to university staff who met with the teen.
Luffman then claimed she was “fine, coping well, and was not under any stress.
“It is sadly clear that Zoe was practised in letting others know only what she wanted them to know about her health,” said the Coroner.
“She gave frequent reassurances about her state of mind, but her diary and other records contradict much of her outward show of wellbeing.”
In the mid-semester breaks in April and July she spent time with friends and family.
No one noticed anything was amiss.
Unbeknown to all of her loved ones Luffman was already planning to die.
“She began making concrete plans for her will and funeral. And she was highly explicit about her chosen means of death,” said the Coroner.
On July 14 Luffman returned to Lincoln - the day before the start of the new term.
Early the next day she saw a doctor at student health and reported an improvement in her anxiety, and denied any suicidality.
She then ran into a friend and the pair spent time together before parting ways in the early evening.
The teen told her friend - and messaged others at the university - that she was heading to the city to spend time with old friends over the weekend and would not be back until late Sunday.
That was untrue.
Instead, she was planning to take her life that night.
“Each of Zoe’s diary entries for 15 July, itemising what she did that day, began with the words, ‘on the morning of the day I died…’, ‘on the evening of the day I died…’ and so on,” the Coroner revealed.
“Zoe later went for a walk to the campus cricket pitch, and ‘looked at the moon and the stars and I prayed’.”
She wrote “I pray that I will find peace” in her diary.
It is thought she died soon after that.
Over the weekend friends and family could not get hold of the teen but were not overly concerned.
Just after 6pm on July 18, Luffman’s father contacted the university and requested a welfare check.
“At 6.40pm accommodation staff entered Zoe’s room, and found her deceased in bed,” said Coroner Borrowdale.
“On Zoe’s tidy desk was an organised packet of letters and documents, including messages to family and friends, and (her) funeral and testamentary wishes.
“The letters that Zoe had left explained her feelings and motivations. Zoe referred to not enjoying university, hearing negative ‘voices’, and feeling tired of wearing a ‘mask’ and “faking” that she was normal when she was not.”
The Coroner said given all of the evidence, she was satisfied Luffman had intended to take her life.
She formally ruled the death a suicide.
“People who take their own lives usually do so as a result of a complex range of factors,” she said.
“Zoe’s diary, letters and other documents written in anticipation of her death, stand as witness to her episodic despair and her growing determination to end her life.
“The records show that Zoe was keeping her growing anxieties private, allowing glimpses only to family and friends.”
Coroner Borrowdale said Luffman revealed some of her “difficulties” to Lincoln University staff but was “misleading” them into thinking she was getting better.
As such, there were no grounds for criticism.
“I cannot see that the university could have done any more to care for (the teen) and it is understandable that a subsequent review of the university by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority endorsed Lincoln’s good practices and compliance with the recently developed Code of Practice,” said the Coroner.
Earlier this month a Givealittle page was launched to raise money in Luffman’s name to help other young women from Marlborough “do more for their environment”.
Zoe Luffman’s Environmental Fund has been set aside for young women in Marlborough aged between 13 and 18 “in support of their local environment projects”.
Coroner urges people to seek help when struggling - here are her words:
Coroner Borrowdale made a number of comments she wanted made public “for the purpose of education aimed at avoiding further suicide by young people in circumstances similar to those in which Zoe died.
“Help is available to anyone who is struggling and thinking of harming themselves,” she said.
“Help is also available to anyone who is concerned or aware that a friend, family member or anyone else is thinking that way.”
The Coroner had initially made an order preventing a number of the “farewell” letters Luffman wrote from being distributed to specific friends.
“The evidence received by me at the time gave me cause for concern that Zoe’s young friends, who were in a distressed state, might be detrimentally affected by the receipt of the letters at that time,” she explained.
“However… I do not have any present basis for thinking that the letters have ongoing acutely injurious potential.
“Zoe expressly indicated that the letters should reach their addressees in the event of her death… police may distribute the letters.
“But I reiterate what I said - that I hope and ask that suitable support services should be made available to Zoe’s friends, should they need it.”