The Epidemic of Suicide.

This article is one I intend to expand on in the future, looking at more places and more setting conditions but for now I’ve focused it on New Zealand.

I’ve honestly never thought about committing suicide, and I’ve never suffered from depression. I won’t go into explaining why depression is a real illness because others have done that much better than me. But I have known many people who have suffered from depression and have attempted to and committed suicide. These are both major problems in the world now, and have been for a long time.

We all suffer down times, or go through experiences that “depress” us, but we have to be clear that suffering from depression is much more serious and not something you can just recover from, depression is a major cause of suicide, it doesn’t take much thought to understand the correlation.

My hometown of Hamilton NZ had the highest teenager suicide rate in the world when I was growing up. Last year, one of my oldest friends committed suicide, she was suffering from depression. It was the usual story of being the last person you’d expect to do this, a person full of life, full of positivity who was secretly suffering the greatest level of personal pain. This brought back the memories of people I’d lost both very close and not very close and I realised that suicide had been a big part of life. Suicide in various terms though. I also know many people committing a type of slow suicide, deeply unhappy people who are steadily destroying their lives with drugs or by alienating others or constantly making decisions that hurt themselves. Suicide seems black and white in many ways but for some it isn’t about a purposeful overdose, or throwing yourself off a bridge, sometimes it’s a steady self-destruction.

There is a long and ongoing argument about whether or not taking your own life is brave or cowardly, most people fall into viewing it as one or other of those extremes and very rarely fall in the middle, people who may or may not have been personally affected by suicide could go either way. I don’t see much value in that debate, the main issue is that people feel the need to do it, and that need must be addressed and this very uncomfortable subject needs to be discussed.

Hamilton is a small city, which has the mighty Waikato River cutting it directly in half. There are several large bridges crossing the river which offer a very convenient way to end your life, not many would survive a fall and many have used this as a means to end their lives. Some choose to quietly take their life in private, others do so publicly. I have known people to use various methods, there is that silly drunk discussion of “What if…” which may focus on “What if you had to choose… blah blah” And many people have had this about suicide. It might seem silly to decide how you would do this should you make this decision, but occasionally there will be someone in that conversation who means it, it’s really no joke. How would you feel if someone said “I’d drown myself” then they really did a few months later?

My youth in Hamilton made me angry, I hated many aspects of life there and left as soon as I could. Part of this knowledge that it was the place where statistically more people my age killed themselves was an aspect, this insidious understanding of everyone else being miserable makes it hard to be happy. I left and improved my life, but it’s easy to feel isolated and hopeless as a young person in New Zealand.

In some cultures, suicide is seen as honourable. Japan is the obvious example, to take your life when you have committed something dishonourable is somehow a way of repenting, most cultures see it as a sin. At the time a group of musicians attempted to put on a concert to bring awareness to the issue. This was due to the numbers but also due to a few high profile suicides. The government shut it down before it happened as the view was that talking about it somehow gave people the idea to do it… which shows a massive lack of understanding of the problem. Young people will watch porn and try drugs regardless of whether there’s a public campaign, but with a campaign at least someone might try to get help or know how to do drugs safely.

This data from a recent BBC article stating UNICEF’s findings.

“A new report by UNICEF contains a shocking statistic – New Zealand has by far the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world.

A shock but no surprise – it’s not the first time the country tops that table.

The UNICEF report found New Zealand’s youth suicide rate – teenagers between 15 and 19 – to be the highest of a long list of 41 OECD and EU countries.

The rate of 15.6 suicides per 100,000 people is twice as high as the US rate and almost five times that of Britain.


Why New Zealand?

There’s a combination of reasons, and it’s important not to only focus on one statistic, warns Dr Prudence Stone of Unicef New Zealand.

The high suicide rate ties in with other data, showing for instance child poverty, high rates of teenage pregnancies or families where neither of the parents have work.

New Zealand also has “one of the world’s worst records for bullying in school”, says Shaun Robinson of the Mental Health Foundations New Zealand.

He explains there is a “toxic mix” of very high rates of family violence, child abuse and child poverty that need to be addressed to tackle the problem.


“There is a tradition of the hardened-up mate culture within New Zealand,” says Dr Stone. “It puts pressure on men to be of a particular mould, pressure on boys to harden up to become these tough beer-drinking hard men.”

You can read the UNICEF report here

I get the side about having to “harden up” real men aren’t supposed to express weakness, emotions, feeling something… and talking about it will lead to derision. Personally have struggled with being a very sensitive person, but also feeling like I need to be tough.

I also get the side about being bullied, because I got bullied as a kid, and I responded violently as the only way to stop bullies seemed to be to hit them back. As an adult and especially as someone who specialises in behaviour management has taught me other ways to deal with conflict.

The teen suicide rates dropped in New Zealand for a number of years, and have very recently gone up again as the UNICEF report states. The reasons now will be partially the same as 20 years ago when I was there, but there will be other factors now affecting the youth of New Zealand. Another recent article also highlighted an aspect of this in a different way.

A man in his 40’s who seemingly had everything, killed himself. Read the article for more insight, or in fact the lack of insight. This is part of the problem, that understanding why is very difficult. Rob Bell took his life due to partially due to depression, but also due to the stoicism, the unwillingness to address the issues in a real way, men don’t get help, we help ourselves. He is a similar age to me, grew up in NZ at the same time, how was he affected by the state of things there? He left, he got away but his depression followed him, good career, and a beautiful wife but that’s not enough. Having everything in life doesn’t take away internal feelings. Could he have gotten help and saved himself? Maybe. This is told from the perspective of his wife, who as the person closest to him still couldn’t do anything to save him.

There have been two recent high profile suicides of rock stars, Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington. Both amongst the most successful and famous rock stars around but both suffered depression and killed themselves as a result. It’s hard to look at these people and not think, why? They had everything? But depression doesn’t discriminate.

I can’t offer a solution to people committing suicide, I’ve lost people close to me and been affected by others not so close to me committing suicide and I can’t honestly say I have a deeper insight into it. Many of the things that have affected these people have also affected me, but my response has been different. Do I have different internal tools to deal with problems? Do I feel things differently?

Clearly there are social issues around identity, poverty and hopelessness amongst many of the youth in New Zealand, those who don’t commit suicide may end up in prison, or with drug addictions due to their own way of dealing with it, but those factors are different for successful men in their 40’s or indeed for my friend Amber, as a woman in her late 30’s.

Many people who commit suicide feel like they are escaping or taking back control over the depression or other things they are feeling. Some feel like they are doing their loved ones a favour by taking their problems away from their family and friends, personally I get this and wouldn’t want my closest to deal with my issues, but that is what loved ones are for as well.

Whenever I reflect on New Zealand I see the dark side, I see the isolation and I see the bullying, poverty and racism. As a visitor to that country most see the landscape, the friendly locals and the Lord of the Rings sets… Is New Zealand and its pervasive attitudes the problem? Partially, but you could find many countries with as much or more hardship both in and out of the “developed world”[1]

The setting factors of the way of thinking in any place is different, and we really can’t judge New Zealand based on other places, some things there are much more advanced than other places. Social Care in NZ could be better, but it’s more advanced than some European countries, NZ was one of the first places to embrace the mobile phone (another debate whether that is good or bad) Looking at the USA right now feels like looking at a place that really isn’t very advanced but everywhere goes through ebbs and flows in attitudes.

What is most important in the message here is don’t underestimate the power of someone’s feelings, don’t judge people for not being tough enough, or appreciating what they have, mental health doesn’t care about what you own, how good looking your partner is or how many people like you. I see suicide as a tragedy that can be avoided, yet I believe in people’s rights to control their own lives and also control how they end, Euthanasia is another difficult debate, why should someone live out the end of their life in pain when they can stop it. There is definitely personal value in experiencing some hardship, some let downs and failures. I’ve personally benefitted from those things but not everyone will. Even employing all my empathy and imagination I struggle to understand how it feels to want to end your life, which is why we as a society need to address this more than we have.


[1] Never liked the phrase “Developing country” it feels patronising, like the natives don’t yet know what civilisation is, but it does describe a place that may be on a path to a different way of being, and there are some places that really do need to catch up in regards to equality, economics and human rights.


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