• KIRWAN: 'Depression made me a better parent'
• Read an exclusive extract from Kirwan's new book, Stand By Me
• Coping with stress 'should be school subject'
• WHERE TO GET HELP: Scroll to end of the article
A paradox is puzzling youth mental health experts: binge-drinking, violence and suicide are all declining, but our teenagers are enduring an escalating epidemic of self-harm.
Sir John Kirwan's new book Stand By Me: Helping Your Teen Through Tough Times spells out the pressures facing today's teenagers: more aggressive advertising, more available alcohol, widespread bullying, child poverty, celebrity culture, family violence, broken homes, less time with parents who are both now working, growing uncertainty over sexual identity and increasing ethnic diversity.
Actually, the data show that many of these things peaked about 20 years ago when unemployment also topped out (at 11 per cent in 1991).
Youth suicides increased from about five a year for every 100,000 people aged 15-24 in the 1950s to 29 in 1995, and fell back to 16 in the year to June this year, the second-lowest since 1986 despite a small upward blip in the recent recession.
Auckland University's Youth 2000 surveys of about 8500 NZ high school students have found that teen binge-drinking has almost halved since 2001, drink-driving has dropped by a third, regular marijuana use has halved, cigarettes have almost disappeared,
violence and fighting have dropped by a third, and students staying away from school because of bullying have dwindled from 9.5 per cent in 2001 to 5.3 per cent in 2012.
These findings are matched by broader social trends here and in other developed countries. British criminologist Manuel Eisner has shown that homicide rates across Europe fell for about 500 years as stable governments displaced revenge killing, falling from about 40 a year for every 100,000 people in the 1400s to below one a year from 1950-74.
They rose again to just over one a year for every 100,000 people from 1974-94 amid rising unemployment and other social changes such as the contraceptive pill, universal education and extended welfare systems, which all freed women to take up paid work and to leave unhappy marriages. But they have declined again across the 33 OECD nations from a median of 1.7 in 1995 to one in 2011, as unemployment came down again and men and women adjusted to their new roles.
Historian Graeme Dunstall has traced the same trends in New Zealand. Our homicide rate fell from four in the 1880s to about 1.3 from 1950-70, rose to 2.3 by 1980, then declined to new lows of 0.9 in 2011-12.
Sole parents trebled from 10 per cent of NZ families with children in 1976 to 31 per cent in the 2001 Census, but have declined slightly since then to 30.2 per cent of families in 2006 and 30.1 per cent last year.
Sir John with his new book, Stand By Me. Photo / Peter Meecham
Teen pregnancy, and even child poverty, show the same pattern of worsening, then more recently improving.
Yet at the same time as all these improvements, the Youth 2000 high-school surveys have found escalating rates of self-harm. In 2012, 29 per cent of girls and 18 per cent of boys harmed themselves deliberately, up from 26 per cent and 16 per cent in 2007.
A 2010 doctoral thesis by Wellington psychologist Dr Jessica Garisch traced the same trends internationally, with some studies as early as 2004 describing self-harm as a "new epidemic". She quoted studies suggesting factors such as growing inequality, parental separation, increased mobility which has broken up the extended family, and "contagion" from self-harming celebrities such as Princess Diana, Johnny Depp and Amy Winehouse.
A 2013 doctoral study of 387 girls at five North Shore colleges by Waitakere psychologist Dr Shelley James found that 22 per cent had self-harmed at least once. Two-thirds of the self-harmers cut themselves, with smaller numbers scratching or hitting their bodies.
The most common reasons were "to feel something - even if pain" (67 per cent), to punish themselves (63 per cent), to stop bad feelings (62 per cent), to relieve feeling numb or empty (60 per cent) and to hurt themselves instead of someone else (51 per cent). Although 20 per cent said they self-harmed partly to get attention, Dr James found that all of them also had emotional reasons.
She also found that parents' involvement with their daughters was a "protective" factor. Self-harmers reported less influence from their parents and more feelings of rejection and powerlessness.
A member of a youth advocacy group at Henderson's Zeal youth centre, Jem King, 15, says a friend cuts herself partly to cope with a distressing family situation.
"She sees her dad maybe every fourth weekend, she'll stay there like the night, but he was not really around till she was 12 or 14 so she's only known him for two years," Jem says.
"It [cutting] takes the pain away, it's something else to think about. So you keep cutting because it keeps the other feelings away and it keeps your mind on something else."
Jayden Dunn, 16, says he used to blister his fingers with a lighter or slide his finger along a guitar string to cope with bullying at school.
"It felt like it was removing that problem," he says.
Sean Blunkell, 20, says: "Heaps of people cut. It's usually bullying, parents neglecting you, friends neglecting you, or looking at the mirror and thinking, 'I wish I was skinnier, I wish I was prettier, I wish I had abs, I wish I had muscles. Every time they take a cut it's one less pressure."
Bullying has existed at least as long as schools have, but it has been heightened by modern social media such as Ask FM, where people can post anonymous comments.
"I've seen people told to kill themselves, and some people do take their own lives," says Davina McGinn, 20.
It often stems from problems at home. Jihana Wright, 17, admits she was a bully at school. Her parents split when she was nine and her mother "just gave attention to her boyfriends".
"She always chose her men over us kids, I'm so mad at her," Jihana says. "The reason why I bullied people was because I didn't get enough attention myself, especially from my mum."
Dr James's study found that a higher proportion of self-harmers (34 per cent) than of those who didn't self-harm (22 per cent) were in solo-mother households, but Dr Garisch's study found no significant difference.
The three Youth 2000 surveys since 2001 have found a steady 90 to 93 per cent of teenagers feel their mothers and/or fathers "care about me a lot".
However, only 49 per cent of teens feel they get enough time with their mothers most of the time, and only 37 per cent get enough time with their fathers most of the time. The main reason for not getting enough time in both cases is that they are at work.
Mothers are increasingly likely to be working when their children are teenagers. Employment rates for women aged 35 to 44 have barely changed since 1987, but employment has risen from 74 per cent to 79 per cent for women aged 45 to 49 and from 60 per cent to 81 per cent for women aged 50 to 54. Male employment has fallen slightly in both age groups from 91-94 per cent to 88-89 per cent.
Suicide researcher Dr Annette Beautrais believes that New Zealand's high rate of sole-parenthood may be one reason why our suicide rate increased most for young men in the period up to 1995, giving us a suicide rate in the 15-29 age group that is still seventh-highest in the 33-nation OECD. By contrast, we have among the lowest suicide rates for all older age groups.
"We are supporting sole mothers, but young men, you can imagine, have become disenfranchised by this," she says. "They don't have the roles that they used to have in terms of being the family providers, and we know that young men who are having custody problems are many times more likely to kill themselves than their peers."
She believes another factor is our low legal drinking age of 18, compared to 21 in the United States.
"Alcohol, after depression, makes the second-biggest contribution to suicidal behaviour, and we have certainly got a significant binge-drinking problem in our youth culture in New Zealand, and we tolerate it."
Dr Theresa Fleming of Youth 2000 says growing pressure on sole parents to work may be affecting their children's wellbeing.
"If you have a kid who is a bit alienated at 13 or 14, and you are the solo parent and you have to be available for fulltime work and your kid is under-monitored as a result, you'd expect that to be a bit of a problem."
Dr Marc Wilson, who heads a youth wellbeing research team at Victoria University, believes teens are feeling more academic pressure at school because of the shift to constant assessment since NCEA came in a decade ago, combined with much more need to get qualifications now that most jobs require them.
However, he also suggests that teenage self-harm may now have passed its peak. He asked school guidance counsellors from around the country at a recent workshop whether self-harm was still rising.
"No one thought it was increasing," he says. "There were several people who said they were seeing fewer young people in their schools presenting to them with self-injury."
Sir John Kirwan will speak about his book at Hamilton Boys' High School on Thursday October 9, 7.30pm, and at Kristin School, Albany, Friday October 10, 7.30pm. For more information CLICK HERE, or for tickets CLICK HERE
WHERE TO GET HELP
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm to 6pm weekdays)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• The Word
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.