By Olivia Carville
Makoura College Principal Paul Green chose not to sidestep the truth after one of his former students took her own life.
“I said she died by suicide. I didn’t want to be brutal about it, but I did want to be plain and clear. I felt that it was right for me to be open with the school community,” Green said.
“I wasn’t obscuring how she died. I was just quietly, truthfully acknowledging it and doing it with integrity. I wasn’t sidestepping it or getting into vague half-references.”
The New Zealand Herald is running a special series on youth suicide called Break the Silence. This week we are investigating the way the issue is handled inside our schools. We found suicide is not openly discussed with students because of fears that talking about it will lead to further deaths.
Green attended his former student’s funeral because she left the school only a few months earlier. He said her family members spoke about the dark pain she had faced before her death.
“We should open up the conversation about suicide as an issue of acute importance. We’re not doing things the right way right now. Not being clear or entirely honest in the way we represent things can muddy the meaning and make it more difficult for our young people to understand the depths of some things.”
Green has worked in six schools of varying deciles in New Zealand and said suicide was an issue in every one. “This is a significant issue our schools are facing at the moment.”
This is the speech Green made about his former student’s death at the Makoura College school assembly earlier this year:
“Last week there was a funeral service for Alex*, a young woman who for three years, up until late last year, had been part of our school community. She’d started a new phase of life in Hamilton*, but then a fortnight ago was found dead.
“So it came down to the familiar ceremony: an audience in front of a coffin, a name in fine font under a photograph, favourite songs and grieving goodbyes as speakers tried to come to terms with losing someone close.
“She had taken her own life and because of that there was a particular pain for those speaking – mostly around the wish to have been able to help, to talk and share some of the despair and agonised hopelessness she must have been feeling. Her death left loose ends and chaos – and hard questions, which mostly can never be answered.
“Our inner life can often be a complex mix of history, secrets, pain, and wishes. Part of being human is having to face the difficulties – of sometimes being lonely, bitter, hurt, empty; of feeling that we’ve failed, ourselves or someone who hoped for more from us; of feeling that we’re not good enough, not bright enough, not talented enough, not … enough.
“How we deal with these difficulties is ultimately for us to decide, but we know that in our teenage years, weighing up how to cope with emotional pain can often be exceptionally hard – not least because the adult world often declares that some things are inappropriate for young people to think about or talk about, even while young people are actively living through those inappropriate things.
“Exploring the heart of darkness through art, music, poetry, drama has always been a deep human need. And seeing how parts of our own life story have been experienced by others helps us understand that we are not alone, that others have been through the same or worse, that there’s hope – a life beyond.
“But we should be careful, too, about considering what other messages are carried by scripted stories such as 13 Reasons Why, which are designed to fit the primetime drama demands for suspense and good guys and bad guys.
“Suggesting that suicide is the right way to respond to the cruelties or challenges that anyone might face risks oversimplifying a very complicated situation and making it seem like a logical way of revenging yourself on others.
“We certainly all need to be more aware of the impact on young people of shaming, sexual assault, sexist or racist attitudes, and online and in-person threatening, manipulation and bullying.
“We need to recognise that suicide ideation, thinking about ending our lives, is a feeling and that it is right and reasonable to talk about our feelings, our doubts and uncertainties, particularly when they seem to swallow or paralyse us.
“Above all, as a society and community, we owe it to ourselves to listen and to hear what is most deeply troubling our young people, you – and remember that more or less every hour of every day every one of us has important choices about how we make other people feel.”
* The name of the student and where she moved to have been changed.
• Support the Mental Health Foundation by texting ‘Break the Silence’ to 2446 to make an automatic $3 donation.
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.
Source: NZ Herald