By: Olivia Carville
Aorere College director of student services Tom Brown wonders whether New Zealand is now ready to talk about youth suicide. Photo / Mike Scott

Warning: This article is about youth suicide and may be distressing for some readers.

New Zealand has the second worst youth suicide (25 and under) rate in the developed world and the worst teen (15-19) rate. The annual number of deaths has remained largely unchanged for 20 years. The New Zealand Herald’s Break the Silence series aims to start a national conversation about this issue.

“I emigrated here from the UK in 2006 where I was a very successful and well-paid teacher but I hated what the education system over there was doing to kids. I took a huge pay cut, uprooted my family, left wider family and friends behind and came to New Zealand.

“I came here to give my own kids a better life, to let them enjoy a life away from the pressures and strains of an over-regulated and over-examined education system. Don’t get me wrong, New Zealand’s education system is far from perfect but – at the moment – it is still less regulated, less examined and still tries to place the individual student at the heart of the education process.

“It was no surprise to me to read recently that UK students are among the unhappiest in the world. What was also not surprising to me was that the statistics for suicide among young people show New Zealand has a rate almost double that of the UK.

“I was frankly amazed at the reaction I got the first time I mentioned that a student of mine had asked if she could research suicide for a discussion piece. I was told it was not a ‘suitable’ topic for students. Admittedly this was 10 years ago but have attitudes changed at all?

“Teen suicide is one of New Zealand’s biggest problems and until very recently was a subject no one wanted to acknowledge. No one talked about it. The culture of the country seemed to me to be that the subject was taboo/tapu. It was not to be raised in the classroom, in the church, in the home. Students were to be discouraged from discussing it.

“Those students that were brave enough to raise it as a subject to be researched as being one of the most relevant problems New Zealand teenagers face were quietly dissuaded
and pointed towards ‘safer’ issues. School counsellors warned that it is an area demanding expertise in its handling. The attitude was that to talk about it might put the idea into someone’s head.

“I come from a different culture. In the UK the subject is open. It is talked about, discussed, debated. Teachers are not afraid to have the topic raised in their classrooms and because it has been discussed and debated openly for so long it has lost its dangerous mystique.

“It is recognised as being a problem that we simply have to be open about. Sure, the issue is sensitive but it is recognised. It exists.

“Teachers learn early in their careers that the more sensitive an issue the more it is likely to be opened up by the kids themselves and they had better be prepared to deal with it.

“To the UK way of thinking, every time there is a teen suicide the first people that know about it are the kids. It hits social media way before it gets into the press and the biggest users of social media are teenagers. They can tell you who, where, when and how. They can’t tell you why because there are usually so many reasons, but they talk about it.

“It’s out there whether we like it or not so we’d better be prepared to deal with it. Shying away from it simply drives it into the dark corners of the mind – the last place it should be.

“How many times have you read in this paper about a teen suicide? How many times have you discussed the subject of that article with members of your family, your congregation, your class? You may ask, ‘Why would I?’ I would ask, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’

“Have you ever commented on what Donald Trump has done/not done/is threatening to do? Isn’t teen suicide more directly concerning to our young people?

“I recognise that New Zealand is a multicultural society and that not all cultures deal with issues of self-harm and suicide in the same way. Each culture has to be approached differently but I do not believe that any culture would wish to continue to watch its young people die.

“The UK is multicultural as well. It faces similar problems in raising the issue among people with different cultural expectations, religious expectations and social expectations yet it has managed to find a way to cope. In fact it’s almost twice as effective as New Zealand.

“During the past few months I have seen more articles discussing suicide and teen suicide in particular than I have in the entire preceding 10 years. Is this a sign that attitudes are changing?

“Are New Zealanders now ready to have these conversations?

“They might be difficult conversations to have but they are a whole lot less difficult than the conversations held at the graveside of a child’s preventable death.”

• Support the Mental Health Foundation by texting ‘Break the Silence’ to 2446 to make an automatic $3 donation.

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:

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.

Source: NZ Herald


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