We look to schools to address most of the social problems faced by children and teenagers and youth suicide is no exception. Many of the personal difficulties giving rise to suicide risks may originate outside school but it is there that classmates, alert teachers and, ideally, skilled counsellors are in a position to see the danger signs and offer timely help. If anything can be done to reduce the number of teenaged suicides in this country - the highest rate in the developed world - it probably has to happen in schools.
Most New Zealanders probably suppose schools are already trying to deal with the problem, as we supposed when we contacted the country's 507 secondary schools top ask how they were handling it. Alarm bells rang when just over half of them refused to engage with us, some saying, "not everyone believes in media coverage of this issue". It became very clear from those who did respond, that the gag on this subject does not just apply to news media, school teachers are told not to talk about suicide in class discussion.
This is extra-ordinary. The classroom is the one place in their lives that school students would expect to be able to have a serious discussion among themselves moderated by a mature person who is not as emotionally involved as their parents. Students have a right to expect this at school and most of us would have been under the impression it was happening because news of a young person's death often mentions the efforts the school is making to help a class deal with it.
But Olivia Carville's report yesterday revealed that when a suicide occurs a trauma team from the Ministry of Education comes to the school and writes a "script" for the principal 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. "It's ministry policy to say sudden death, never suicide," explained a ministry psychologist, Roger Phillipson. "Even if students ask questions, we would advise teachers that they stick to the script." It should be noted that the Ministry relaxed its suicide policy in 2013, allowing schools to say a death may be a "suspected suicide".
How unhelpful, how insulting to the intelligence of students who usually know exactly what has happened, and how frustrating for teachers to be given a formula of anodyne phrases to recite instead of being able to engage to help their charges confront the subject honestly. No wonder 40 percent of the 235 schools that did respond to our questions did not feel they were adequately supported to handle suicidal behaviour.
Those schools have suffered a total of 150 suicides. One has lost six students to suicide in the past 10 years. One principal had dealt with 40 attempts of self harm or suicide over his career, another estimated she dealt with five such attempts a year on average. This is not a rare problem. Yet 39 of those 235 schools had no trained counsellor on site. Rural schools can be poorly served yet rural suicide rates are higher.
At the bare minimum, professional counselling should be available to all secondary school students but they should not be the only ones permitted to talk to students about this problem. To deal with he country's frightful toll we have to break the silence.
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.