Warning: This article is about youth suicide and may be distressing for some readers.


It was in early June 2012, as New Zealand was edging into another winter, that teacher Tracey Lawson stood in front of her class and defied official policy by choosing to tell the truth.

With 20 careworn teenage faces turned towards her, Lawson did the unthinkable. She talked about suicide.

Mia Dunn and Colin Taipari-Herewini. Photo / Supplied
Mia Dunn and Colin Taipari-Herewini. Photo / Supplied

Two students from her class, Colin Taipari-Herewini and Mia Dunn, both 14, had killed themselves weeks earlier. Everyone knew Colin and Mia had died by suicide and their classmates wanted to know why. They asked Lawson if they should have seen the signs; if they were to blame.

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"They just had so many questions," Lawson said. But like all other teachers at Kamo High School - and any school that experiences a student suicide in New Zealand - Lawson was gagged from talking about suicide by a long-standing law.

Schools are bound by legislation that states a self-inflicted death can be called a suicide only if a coroner rules it is, even though it takes on average a year for a coronial finding to be completed.

In the wake of a student suicide, the Ministry of Education trauma team descends on a school and writes a script for principals and teachers to read to students. The script aims to minimise discussion of suicide, and does not mention why it happens or how to prevent it.

Silence on suicide has been orthodox in New Zealand since the mid-1990s when a national panic over the increasing rate of teen suicide led to officials shutting down public conversations on the issue through fears it could cause more deaths.

"It's ministry policy to say sudden death, never suicide," said Ministry of Education psychologist Roger Phillipson, a former long-term ministry trauma team leader. "Even if students ask questions, we would advise teachers that they stick to the script."

New Zealand has the worst suicide rate among those aged 15-19 in the developed world, and it's shown no sign of abating over the past 20 years. A new survey of 8500 high school students by the University of Auckland found one in 20 had attempted suicide in the past year.

For the past six months, the New Zealand Herald has investigated youth suicide for a special series called Break the Silence.

Schools are often left to support grieving students in the aftermath of a suicide and the Herald canvassed our 507 high schools to understand how suicide is being handled behind the gates.

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We found this is an issue of epidemic proportions, with schools dealing with suicidal ideation and self-harm on a daily basis. Students have been discovered unconscious on school grounds after attempts to end their life and they've sent suicide notes to teachers.

In some schools, suicide is known simply as "the s word".

The Government advises schools to shut down conversations about suicide. Some schools have refused to allow funerals of students who have killed themselves to be held on site and banned students from working on projects about suicide.

These measures are in place to avoid suicide contagion - a phenomenon where somebody suffering from mental health issues or depression might make the impulsive decision to end their life if they hear about suicides in their community.

Just over half of the secondary schools contacted by the Herald refused to engage, with some saying "not everyone believes in media coverage of this issue".

The 235 schools that replied had experienced a combined 150 student suicides. In one school a Year Nine student had killed themselves only three weeks earlier. Another school had lost six students to suicide since 2007.

One principal said he had dealt with 40 serious suicide attempts or self-harm incidents. Another estimated she had at least five student suicide attempts a year on average.

Sixty schools said they didn't have a written suicide policy, despite reporting suicide attempts on school grounds. Thirty-nine said they had no counsellor on-site.

Forty per cent of the schools that responded said they did not feel adequately supported to handle the suicidal behaviour of students.

"I guess the question is, in a country with one of the highest teenage suicide rates in the OECD, are we giving our teenagers the best possible care in schools?" asked Tanya Clark, head of counselling at St Dominic's Catholic College.

Education Minister Nikki Kaye. Photo / Michael Craig
Education Minister Nikki Kaye. Photo / Michael Craig

Education Minister Nikki Kaye conceded previous government attempts to address youth suicide had largely failed and it was time for a "national conversation" on the issue.

"Do I think we can do better in terms of support for schools in this area? Yes, I do. and I will be listening to the concerns raised by schools," Kaye said.

The S Word

After a popular, young teacher at Te Whanau Tahi School in Christchurch killed himself last year, his students wanted to know if he'd go to Heaven.

They also wanted to know why he "had to put a hole in our hearts?".

Melanie Riwai-Couch, principal of the maori language school, was left trying to answer these questions while avoiding the topic of suicide.

In a eulogy at his funeral, Riwai-Couch said: "He left an indelible impression on the hearts of those he taught. It is our kura whanau [school family] who will now have to carry our students through this. But how do you explain to a young person that a man so brave, strong, successful and caring could also be so vulnerable and cause so much pain?"

Students from Te Whanau Tahi school in Christchurch wrote questions about their teacher's suicide on post-it notes. Photo / Supplied.
Students from Te Whanau Tahi school in Christchurch wrote questions about their teacher's suicide on post-it notes. Photo / Supplied.

One parent told her the teacher's death "really brought the boogeyman into the kura".

Riwai-Couch never used the word suicide when discussing the teacher's death because, she said, "we are advised not to use that word and there are limitations to being able to".

However, she added, with the ever-growing reach of social media, all the students knew he had killed himself anyway. "It took away our innocence and was an incredible blow that still ripples today."

Four years ago a Year 11 student at a high school on Auckland's North Shore killed himself and his classmates found out via Facebook. Tom Calver, now 20, was in the young man's class and remembers reading the RIP post.

At school the following week, the students all talked about the suicide, but the teachers didn't, Calver said. "It shocked everyone, but it wasn't mentioned. There was no special assembly, no announcement on how or where to get help.

"It sort of just hung over us."

Calver thinks the way the school handled the death was "horrendous". "It should be easier for people to talk about this."

Nina Griffiths, 18, Paige Dinsdale, 19, and Mariah Herbert, 20, all lost close friends to suicide at high school. They also knew how their friends ended their lives.

Because their schools shut down conversations about suicide, all three young women felt like the issue was "swept under the rug" which made grieving harder.

"We weren't allowed to talk about it. It was like we were just expected to get over it," Griffiths said.

"It was like he'd done this really bad thing and we couldn't speak his name anymore," said Herbert.

Nina Griffiths, 18, (photo supplied) Paige Dinsdale, 19, and Mariah Herbert, 20. Photo / Mike Scott.
Nina Griffiths, 18, (photo supplied) Paige Dinsdale, 19, and Mariah Herbert, 20. Photo / Mike Scott.

Silence on suicide in schools is an outdated policy and it's time for change, said Heather Henare, chief executive of Skylight, a charitable trust that provides specialised grief support for children.

"Talking openly about suicide is one of the most helpful things you can do," she added.

A Skylight advice booklet on helping children in the aftermath of a suicide states: "Adults often want to shield young people from hearing a difficult truth, but lying to protect them by avoidance or half-truth often has damaging consequences.

"Children and young teens will learn the truth one day and trust in you can be broken. Worse - they may feel they have to now honour the lie themselves, bottling up any questions, thoughts or feelings they have about suicide."

Psychiatrist James Reardon claimed it was "truly unfortunate" New Zealand schools were not able to educate youth about suicide. "We are using a system that has not worked in 20 years and it's time for us to change like the rest of the world is changing."

Leon Hillegers, a father from South Canterbury who has been personally affected by youth suicide, said he could not understand the rationale behind shutting down these conversations.

"We're already talking about alcohol and drugs, child pregnancy and other issues like that in schools, so why are we so scared to talk about suicide?" Hillegers asked.

A number of schools complained about the law to the Ministry of Education, saying it was difficult and unrealistic not to mention the word suicide after a student death. In response, the ministry relaxed its suicide policy in 2013, allowing schools to say a death may be a "suspected suicide".

"While we advise teachers to acknowledge speculation that this was a suspected suicide, we suggest they move on to talking about how students may be feeling... This approach is based on international best practice advice," said Katrina Casey, head of sector enablement and support at the ministry.

Last July the Coroners Act was amended to match the ministry's updated policy, legally allowing schools - and the media - to say a death may be a "suspected suicide" before a coroner rules on it.

However, it does not appear the change has filtered down to classroom level. Nearly all the schools that responded to the Herald said they would not use the word suicide in the classroom because it was against the law.

Roger Phillipson, who led the ministry's trauma team through more than 30 school suicides over 14 years said the most important thing for schools is to return to a normal routine as quickly as possible.

"What schools have to decide is what is helpful for these young people to recover. Is it more helpful to say suicide or is it more helpful to say there's been a tragic death and help them grieve and move forward?" he asked.

Tracey Lawson isn't sure. When she was facing Class 10LW after the deaths of Colin Taipari-Herewini and Mia Dunn, dancing around the truth wasn't an option.

Kamo High School teacher Tracey Lawson. Photo / Mike Scott
Kamo High School teacher Tracey Lawson. Photo / Mike Scott

"It's all good and well to have a policy, but when you've got these young people in front of you and they're trying to figure out why their classmates aren't there anymore, you have to talk."

Education Minister Nikki Kaye told the Herald she was "very open" to the idea of revisiting the ministry guidelines and the relevant legislation if schools called for it.

"If we can improve the system, then we need to," she said.

Crying for change

All the schools contacted by the Herald were asked how they could be better supported to deal with suicide and the same response came back time and time again.

The "single most useful thing" the Ministry of Education could do for suicide prevention is reintroduce tagged funding for counsellors in schools, said Andrew Wood, Principal of James Hargest College in Invercargill.

"The school could be better supported to cope with a student suicide and indeed to prevent student suicide by funding increased staffing for counsellors," said Auckland's Elim Christian College Principal Murray Burton.

"Our counsellors are inundated and so further Ministry of Education funding for more counsellors in schools would be of great benefit," said Richard Vanderpyl, Principal of Middleton Grange School in Christchurch.

"We are under-resourced in dealing with social and mental health generally. Teachers are not trained for this work," said Deborah Hohneck, Principal of Te Kauwhata College, an hour north of Hamilton.

Education reforms in the mid-1990s removed mandatory funding that forced schools to have at least one counsellor for every 400 students. The reforms allowed funding previously set aside for counsellors to be shuffled elsewhere and some schools did just that.

The Herald found some schools in New Zealand have more than 600 students and not one counsellor.

Fifty-nine high schools reported having less than one fulltime counsellor equivalent. Thirty-nine have no counsellor whatsoever.

Te Mania O'Rourke, Whanganui Girls College registered social worker, supports around 150 students every year. In any week, she is carrying between 20 to 30 students, with a significant number suffering from suicidal ideation.

"It just doesn't make sense to me to not have social workers in every secondary school," O'Rourke said.

The New Zealand Association of Counsellors "number one recommendation" for the Government since 2013 has been to take another look at staffing formulae in schools, particularly tagged funding for counsellors.

Spokeswoman Sarah Maindonald said it was the association's "hobby horse" to try to get the mandatory one counsellor to 400 students ratio reintroduced.

Rural schools battle

In a small country school at the top of the South Island, a 13-year-old boy attempted to harm himself in the grounds earlier this year.

The following day he was taken to hospital - a 45-minute drive away - with injuries.

The Herald has chosen not to identify the school. Its principal had tried desperately to get the student mental health support to no avail.

He'd previously called for help for two other students with behavioural issues, but mental health workers in the nearest major centre told him they couldn't make it to the school community because that same 45-minute drive was "too far".

"This little office I sit in here, I feel isolated and certainly don't always know what to do," the principal said. "I spend a lot of time counselling students."

Rural suicide rates in New Zealand are on average 20 to 50 per cent higher than urban rates. In March, the Herald attended the National Area Schools Association conference in Wellington and heard how rural schools were dealing with self-harm and suicide every day.

These problems are "growing exponentially", one school board member declared, adding that they are becoming a huge burden on staff.

"There's a misconception that because you are a teacher you can also be a counsellor," the principal of one rural South Island school said. "People think we are miraculously good at dealing with students in crisis - we are not."

Kelvin Woodley, who represents 12 of New Zealand's area schools in a professional capacity, told the Herald he was not the only country school principal "fighting the system to get the services we need".

Tapawera Area School Principal Kelvin Woodley. Photo / Supplied
Tapawera Area School Principal Kelvin Woodley. Photo / Supplied

"It feels like you have to fight everyone and everything. Yes our numbers are smaller, but the need is just as real and just as big."

In 2013, a rural school in the South Island was rocked by three suicides in one term: a Year 13 student, a former student and a teacher. The school had only 105 pupils and it was the first time it had experienced a suicide.

The Ministry of Education trauma team flew in and provided immediate support which the principal, who asked not to be named, said was "excellent, but only temporary".

The small West Coast community didn't have enough mental health services - the nearest clinic was a 1.5 hour drive away - so many descended on the school.

"There was no one for people to go and talk to, so they came to us, which was really doubly worse for us," the principal said.

"The trauma team did check in occasionally but we were largely left on our own to handle it. We became very aware of the lack of resources available in the more remote areas [of New Zealand]."

For six months after the suicides, the school had to survive without a counsellor on-site.

"I've been a principal at bigger schools on the coast and I know what they got. I understand how difficult it is to support remote areas, but I wasn't going to accept any less for our students," the principal said.

"It has taken three years of constant wishing and upsetting people and being very forthright, but the service we are now getting I am reasonably comfortable with."

A counsellor from the local hospital spends one day a week at the school now. "Do we have the full support we want? No, we don't. There are never enough dollars, ever."

Blow the whistle, break the silence

Kamo High School Principal Jo Hutt says they deal with a young person talking about suicide once a week.

Kamo High School Principal Jo Hutt. Photo / Mike Scott
Kamo High School Principal Jo Hutt. Photo / Mike Scott

"This is not suicide central; this is just a normal old secondary school," Hutt said.

Kamo High was left reeling after Colin Taipari-Herewini and Mia Dunn killed themselves in 2012. But, Hutt said, "suicide isn't something that just happened in 2012 and now it's over".

After Colin and Mia's deaths, the Ministry of Education trauma team "ran in and did a good job and supported the school, but that's all gone now".

"It's almost like a pressure cooker and it's just building and building and building. It's like we're back in 2011, waiting for it to happen all over again."

It's time for New Zealand to "get real with what's going on here," Hutt said.

"We as a country don't have social workers in schools and we don't have allocated guidance care. We're trimming back all the things that don't make a noise and that can't be seen and I fear what's going to happen.

"This is societal and we need to blow the whistle, blow it hard."

- Additional reporting, Kirsty Wynn and Arun Jeram.
• Support the Mental Health Foundation by texting 'Break the Silence' to 2446 to make an automatic $3 donation.
WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:

DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234

There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.