By: Olivia Carville

Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Adviser to the Prime Minister, says we must build resilience in youth to reduce our suicide rates. Photo / Dean Purcell.

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

In an exclusive interview for the final week of the Herald‘s special series, Break The Silence, Sir Peter Gluckman outlined key ways he believes we can reduce the number of young people killing themselves.

They include looking beyond prevention programmes and building resilience, self-control and social skills in children at preschools and primary schools.

“In New Zealand we have a high number of kids who die by suicide, that’s clear. If we just keep thinking about it in terms of an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, the problem will continue to grow,” Gluckman said.

New Zealand has the worst teen suicide rate in the developed world and the second worst youth rate – among those aged 25 and under.

For the past 20 years, the rates have remained largely unchanged, with around 130 people under 25 taking their lives each year, some as young as 10.

Asked why the rate has not changed, despite millions of dollars being pumped into suicide prevention programmes, Gluckman said: “I think New Zealand has had a relatively ‘she’ll be right’ attitude for a long time.”

But he said that while “this issue is long-standing, it is changing dramatically”.

“We are starting to ask some really hard questions and these are hard questions – they are not easy questions for any government of any form to solve. They are issues that involve the whole of society.”

Last month, Gluckman released a report on youth suicide in New Zealand, outlining the complexities of the issue, including how expectations on young people have changed and how the digital world has changed the way our children are growing up and what they’re exposed to.

In an interview with the Herald published yesterday, Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman conceded New Zealand’s teen suicide rate may be a result of us not doing enough to build resilience and self-esteem in our youth.

Gluckman agreed:

“We need to focus on the individual and how they develop to make them more resilient and we need to think about the world out there in which these kids are growing up.”

Sitting beneath New Zealand’s high youth suicide rate are high rates of family violence, gang behaviour and alcohol and illicit drug use in young people, he added.

“It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion skin. All these factors play into understanding what is a very complex situation where sadly every sad story is slightly different. We have other issues here that reflect on needing to have a better conversation, as a country, about who we are.”

Gluckman said there are no “perfect solutions” that will eradicate youth suicide fast, but lots of smaller things that will make a difference over time.

For example, in preschools we can work on developing social skills in children through games and in primary schools we can use good behaviour exercises to enhance emotional control and build self-control.

We can screen children for mental health issues and increase access to counsellors and cognitive behaviour therapists in high schools, he suggested.

For the Government in power after next month’s election, the difficult decision will be trying to choose which solutions are the most critical to focus on when you have “a smorgasbord of 30 to 40 things you could do; all of which might do something”.

Policymakers have to decide which solutions will “really matter in the end and which ones are government responsibility as opposed to family or community responsibility,” Gluckman said.

The current Government is investigating potential solutions with a sense of urgency and announcements on new mental health initiatives are expected in coming weeks.

“In many Western countries mental health has been parked as the orphan beside physical health,” Gluckman said, “but we as a society are now seeing that mental health is the biggest health challenge we actually have.”


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
1737 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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