Warning: This article is about suicide and may be distressing for some readers.
Throughout the Herald's Break The Silence series about youth suicide, we have published first-person pieces from individuals closely related to the issue and experts in the field. Today, former Children's Commissioner Ian Hassall lays out some incontrovertible facts about youth suicide and says it is time for New Zealand to face our inconvenient truth. In his own words:
Youth suicide in New Zealand is an inconvenient truth, the term used by Al Gore in his 2006 movie which launched his campaign to have the world recognise the threat to humanity of global warming.
In 2009 Gore said, "I've been trying to tell this story for a long time and I feel as if I've failed to get the message across." I feel the same.
For years I have tried to bring attention to basic facts about the excess of youth suicides in New Zealand. The implications of these facts are as clear as Gore found in relation to climate change.
Year upon year, they have been denied. Sadly, it is not enough to see something clearly or even to articulate it well. If it undermines our comfortable status quo it will not be heard.
I became interested in youth suicide in the early 1990s during my term as Commissioner for Children.
At that time there had been a sudden, startling increase in these deaths. The suicide rate for New Zealand males aged 15-19 had doubled in the course of three years from 16 per 100,000 in 1985 to 32 per 100,000 in 1988. This spectacular and sustained rise had given New Zealand the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD.
Public alarm was somewhat muted by the code of journalist practice, supported by the Ministry of Health, that limited reporting of suicides for fear of provoking more. There was also an element of denial driven by a deep-seated dread of contamination if it were discussed.
Perhaps now, this country is ready to deal with the facts of youth suicide. The critical fact is that New Zealand has the highest rate of youth suicide in the OECD. This excess of young people's deaths in New Zealand when compared with other OECD countries must be a result of local factors.
The statistics show that whatever these factors were, they began to operate from 1985 to 1988. That was a time of social turmoil in New Zealand. The economic restructuring that was sweeping the world was imposed faster and deeper in New Zealand than elsewhere.
"No pain, no gain" was the catchphrase of Rogernomics. What it meant was that it was expected that the structural changes would be painful but they would be worth it in creating a more robust economy.
For young people, the changes were rapid and painful indeed. Suddenly, finding a job was not guaranteed and bright future prospects dimmed for many. A reduced welfare safety net meant that many were not sufficiently helped and inequality widened.
For many young men in particular their identity had to be forged through means other than employment and options for this were limited in this country.
The Canadian historian, John Weaver, who examined all New Zealand coroners' reports on suicides from 1900-2000 was also struck by the sudden and sustained increase in youth suicides from 1985.
He said: "The explanatory argument is that rising rates of youth suicide are best studied in relation to deep changes in the culture and economy which coalesced in 'a perfect storm' bearing down directly and suddenly on young people."
Officially New Zealand has focussed on mental health and mental health services as a means of dealing with the problem. Mental ill-health and lack of mental health services cannot explain the sudden doubling of youth suicide from 1985 to 1988.
Not surprisingly, then, this approach has failed. Mental ill-health undoubtedly has a part to play in many youth suicides, but there is no reason that this should be more of a problem in New Zealand than in other countries.
It is comforting to believe that young people will be safer if our mental health services are improved but it is largely a false hope. Saying so will, no doubt make me unpopular, but so be it.
It is not clear what has sustained the high rate since 1988. Changes in the conditions of life for young people, of inequality and insecurity against a background of blatant materialism, have persisted and some have worsened.
I had hoped that there would be some adjustment and rates would fall, but we must now recognise that in addition to the original changes suicide has become embedded in the youth culture as an option.
The facts underlying youth suicide are not only inconvenient but unpleasant and dangerous. I expect it is for this reason they are denied but until they are acknowledged we are unlikely to make progress in reducing this burden on our young people and our society as a whole.
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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.
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.