Suicide. A dirty word? Or something that really needs to be talked about?

But before I do, here are the rules of engagement. By writing about suicide, I am in no way endorsing or encouraging it. This is my opinion, and my words alone. Please do not read anything into them that isn't explicitly there.

Like everybody else, I woke up on Saturday morning to the news that Anthony Bourdain had been found dead in a French hotel. I knew who he was – unlike Kate Spade who also took her own life the week before. For some reason, Bourdain's demise got to me. Not because he's especially important to me. He wasn't. I spent the rest of Saturday in a noticeably low mood, and reflected on what it takes for someone to pull the pin on their life.

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I'm pretty sure I know. Having had bouts of depression for years, I understand the strain of putting on a brave face while, on the inside, the metaphorical iceberg beneath your feet is fast melting.

Have I ever thought of ending it all? Who hasn't? Have I ever come close to doing it? No. But there's a rider to this. For as long as I can remember I've accepted that ending my own life is an option. And a perfectly legitimate one. It's my life, you see. Not anybody else's.

Now, I know there are those among us who, through a combination of religiosity and/or self-righteousness, instantly reach for the "selfish" label. They speak of the "sanctity of life", as if such verbiage helps either the dead, or the person who is contemplating soon being so. It's blame-y, and futile.

Every suicide, as far as I can tell, is as individual as the person doing it. The reasons are myriad, the pain is beyond bearable, and the tragedy is, well, tragic. For everyone. But it's ultimately more about the dead than the alive. Except somehow the living must find a way to live with it. And in doing so there appears to be a degree of moralising and rationalising. It's human nature.

The reason I've always seen suicide as a possibility for me is because of one word. Control. Or, at least, it gives the veneer of having some, and is not a hugely radical notion.

In the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a cop played by Woody Harrelson is told he has terminal pancreatic cancer. As he's got to the point of spitting up blood, he spends his last day in the wild with his family.

He makes love with his wife in the woods, tucks his kids into bed that night, and gives not a hint of what he's about to do. He has horses, and chooses their stable to put an end to his own suffering. He consciously doesn't want his family to see him fade away to a mere nub of a man.

Spade was 55 and Bourdain was 61. Photo / AP
Spade was 55 and Bourdain was 61. Photo / AP

Who could begrudge him that? And sure, that's one relatively sane reason for taking your own life but, overwhelmingly, it is not done in any kind of rational state. As such, you could say that suicide is dying of mental illness. We don't call someone selfish if they die of cancer. Or look to blame ourselves for it. Do we?


The way we have traditionally talked about suicide in New Zealand – or, more to the point, haven't always talked about it (unless a distant celebrity does it) – is a big part of the horrific statistics.

According to a 2017 report by UNICEF, New Zealand's teen suicide rate - for people between 15 and 19 - is the highest in a list of 41 OECD and EU countries. Overall, we had 15.6 suicides per 100,000 people - which is twice as high as the US, and almost five times that of Britain.

We also have one of the world's worst records for bullying in schools, coupled with a "toxic mix" of high rates of family violence, child abuse and child poverty, according to the Mental Health Foundation. Let's be honest with ourselves. What do we expect?

Our dominant culture is stoicism, rugby, and alcohol-fuelled manliness. Add in an unrelenting landscape of capitalist values, with climate change now seriously impacting because of it, and the perfect storm is brewing. Indeed, has brewed.

Largely, both politically and culturally, the current Kiwi approach to suicide is silence, followed closely by judgment. And that approach is not working. It neither brings the rate down, or stops an individual heart from flatlining.

Apart from Mike King working his guts out to change things, and excellent journalism in the form of last year's 'Break the Silence' in this newspaper, and the moving 606 empty pairs of shoes campaign, I'm not seeing a radical shift in our discourse.

Suicide can't continue to be taboo. Everyone has thoughts and feelings about it, and virtually everyone is eventually touched by it. More dialogue is needed.

Less of the "selfish" narrative, and more of the sad. Because that's what it is. Purely, heartbreakingly, overwhelmingly sad.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.