Warning: This article is about youth suicide and may be distressing for some readers.
Young people say adult censorship of suicide has to stop as research shows almost one in 20 secondary school students report trying to take own lives each year.
Extensive University of Auckland research found nearly one in 20 students reported attempted suicide over a 12 month period. Students from poor families were nearly three times more likely to try to take their own lives.
Analysing data from a 2012 survey of some 8500 NZ high school students, the researchers found 4.5 per cent of high school students reported attempting suicide in the past 12 months, while 7.9 per cent had repeatedly self-harmed over that time. The study was published in June in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.
Meanwhile a separate University of Auckland survey published this week found young people wanted to talk openly about suicide but felt the discussion had been shut down by adults.
The research comes as the New Zealand Herald runs a special series on youth suicide, called Break the Silence, to raise awareness of how and why we lead the developed world in teen suicide and hold the second worst rate in youth suicide (25 and under).
Co-author of the first study Dr Song Chan said the researchers were surprised at the high rate of suicide attempts, but the study also provided clues into who was most at risk.
Around one in four kids who reported an episode of low mood said they went on to attempt suicide or self harm, or both, while those living in poverty were nearly three times more likely to attempt suicide.
There's a widely-held belief in New Zealand that exposure to suicidal behaviour can be contagious, particularly in schools. But the study found little evidence that was true; students from schools where someone had taken their life in the past year were no more likely to attempt suicide themselves if the person was not a friend or family member.
But if a friend or whanau member had taken or attempted to take their own life, students were 4-5 times more likely to report a suicide attempt.
While it was impossible to attribute cause and effect, there were clear links that meant a student was at increased risk. Schools and communities should be on "high alert" when the risk factors start to line up, Chan said.
"If there are a lot of these factors we start thinking, these are the students that need more support."
The researchers recommended school-based interventions which could help at-risk students earlier, as well as collaboration between schools and the mental health sector.
That echoes research published this week from the University of Auckland showing young people desperately want to be able to talk about suicide but feel adults in New Zealand are brushing the issue under the carpet.
They say media censorship and social taboos around suicide don't help and force students to discuss suicide among themselves without seeking adult advice.
The focus groups said there was widespread distress when a peer took their own life, and being able to discuss it with their friends helped deal with the shock and provide "closure".
Researchers from Auckland University's School of Psychology ran focus group discussions with 38 young people. Many pointed to "a broad unwillingness in New Zealand society to talk openly about suicide", the researchers wrote.
"Some participants believed that this reflected a deeper problem with acknowledging and tackling psychological and social problems in the country."
Efforts to control access to this information were seen as futile, the study said.
"They noted the irony of censorship which some believed left young people to talk about suicide without adult knowledge or participation."
Fears of being misunderstood also stopped students from talking to adults. Many wanted to discuss suicide in a "normal" way without the situation being escalated, but feared speaking with a professional could see them diagnosed with a mental health issue.
The researchers called for more open discussion around suicide and an exploration of how professionals could better discuss the issue with young people, including using digital communication methods to bridge the divide.
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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.
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