Renowned Kiwi scientist Sir Ray Avery says there's an obvious link between New Zealand's abysmal youth suicide and school bullying rates which the Government needs to urgently address.

Sir Ray says bullying "is a major contributor to teen suicide rates in New Zealand" and the Government should implement a preventive nationwide school anti-bullying programme "as a matter of urgent priority".

His call has the backing of Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft, who has recently been advocating for schools to have compulsory anti-bullying programmes.

Meanwhile the Government's former chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, says youth suicide is a complex issue but bullying is one of a long list of its causes.

Advertisement

Sir Ray, the father of two daughters, suggested the start of a nationwide "it's cool to be kind" anti-bullying programme to make New Zealand "the best and safest place in the world to bring up children".

New Zealand now had the highest global rate of suicide for 15- to 19-year-olds, ranked two in the world for bullying in schools and third in the world for cyber-bullying.

"Based on these statistics New Zealand is the least safe place in the world to bring up children.

"The irony of our society is that as individuals New Zealanders are the most moral and caring nation on the planet but our collective culture needs a lot of work."

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft says bullying is one of many factors involved in the high youth suicide rate. Photo / File
Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft says bullying is one of many factors involved in the high youth suicide rate. Photo / File

As a scientist, Sir Ray said he wanted to try to understand the drivers for the high youth suicide rate and found, internationally, that included many factors - ethnicity, institutional racism, sexual orientation and gender identity, neurology, peer media influence, poor nutrition, substance abuse and bullying and abuse.

He looked at the other countries which also had high teen suicide rates - Iceland, Latvia and Estonia.

All are relatively small, with populations between 0.3 and 4.8 million and mainly monocultural societies with low population densities.

New Zealand, Latvia and Estonia have high rates of bullying in schools but Iceland reported only moderate bullying.

Advertisement

He also found New Zealand's teen suicide rate had steadily increased in line with GDP growth.

"We are getting richer and our teens' suicide deaths are increasing. Barbados has a 10 per cent unemployment rate and a whopping 47 per cent divorce rate yet its teen suicide rate is over 15 times less than New Zealand."

Bullying was now "so prevalent that it has become accepted as a cultural norm".

Gluckman, who co-authored the Youth Suicide in New Zealand discussion paper in 2017, says his research is still relevant now.

He said youth suicide was a complex issue, largely being driven by a change in society including social media, and that bullying was one of many factors involved.

"The bulk of children who [die by] suicide have got deficient emotional social control ... or drugs and alcohol have impaired them, and there's a trigger that they can't deal with due to their lack of emotional control."

Sir Peter Gluckman says the bulk of children who die by suicide have got deficient emotional social control, while alcohol or drugs are found in the blood of more than half who die. Photo / File
Sir Peter Gluckman says the bulk of children who die by suicide have got deficient emotional social control, while alcohol or drugs are found in the blood of more than half who die. Photo / File

Social-media peer pressure could also be a catalyst.

"Because of its nature it can be particularly nasty and awkward and overwhelming. Young people live in their social network on the media and if they turn against them they think the world's turned against them."

Alcohol and drugs was another factor.

Statistics from coroners' reports revealed the number of children who die by suicide with alcohol or drugs in their blood was "well over 50 per cent", he said.

Judge Becroft wanted it compulsory for every school to have "an evidence-based and validated anti-bullying programme" in place, a zero tolerance for bullying, a process where those bullied can raise it's happening "without stigma or shame" as well as schools beginning to collect statistics to show what was going on.

He agreed it was a complex issue and often a reflection or "microcosm" of greater issues in the community.

"Connected with it all is our very high rate of youth suicide, which is one of, if not the highest in the world for young people and in that Māori are nearly three times higher than non-Māori and that in itself is of enormous and profound concern."

He agreed there was no single cause of youth suicide but combating bullying would help.

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 police immediately on 111.

OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:

• 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• https://www.lifeline.org.nz/services/suicide-crisis-helpline
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202