Reaching out

Pensive businessman looking through office window. Modern office building in the background.
Pensive businessman looking through office window. Modern office building in the background.

New Zealand’s suicide rate is the highest it has ever been. In our special MiNDFOOD investigation, Catherine Masters talks to survivors, asks what helped them recover and learns what we can all do to help turn things around.

By Catherine Masters

Taimi Allan from Auckland calls the part of her brain that sometimes talks to her about suicide “Trump”.  That’s as in Donald Trump, the American president. That part of her brain loves fake news, says this survivor of three suicide attempts between the ages of 15 and 30, who is now in her forties. Brains can be very convincing, Allan says, but using the name ‘Trump’ means she doesn’t have to believe the thought – and she certainly doesn’t have to act on it.

Another survivor, Toni from Christchurch, woke up one day in intensive care. She was a young mum in her twenties and at that time she genuinely believed her two little girls and her husband would be better off without her. She was overwhelmed, she says, and felt she was a burden. Toni is now a happy-to-be-alive 54-year-old.

In post-earthquake Christchurch everyone is told to be prepared with an emergency kit. Toni believes we should all have an emergency kit for mental health, too. We should put into our phones the numbers for supportive friends and for helplines, and the 1737 number run by the National Telehealth Service, where all you have to do is text.

Some people might want to put Nelson man Gareth Edwards’ new book in their kit. It’s titled The Procrastinator’s Guide to Killing Yourself: Living When Life Feels Unliveable. Edwards, a middle-aged Pākehā in his 40s, is not being flippant – he once came close to taking his own life, too. Procrastination worked for him. There’s a “weird space” when you are having serious suicidal thoughts, he says, where you can’t do anything. So don’t do anything. Put it off instead.

MiNDFOOD spoke to a range of people following the release of New Zealand’s latest suicide statistics (668 people took their own lives in 2017/2018) and in the wake of some high-profile, sudden deaths that got the country talking about suicide once again. US chef Anthony Bourdain died in France in June, and TVNZ journalist Greg Boyed died while in Switzerland in August. Also in August the chief coroner, Judge Deborah Marshall, announced New Zealand’s suicide rate was at its highest level since provisional statistics were first recorded. Of the 668 deaths, “European and other” top the figures (462 deaths) but Māori (142 deaths) are disproportionately high for their population size and are at record levels.

While the majority are male (475 deaths), female suicides (193 deaths) have also increased.

The highest numbers by age are 20 to 24-year-olds, closely followed by 45 to 49-year-olds. Our youth suicide rate is also consistently high and has been for years – a report from UNICEF last year placed New Zealand as worst out of 41 OECD countries for youth suicide.

Why are there so many deaths by suicide in such a great little country as New Zealand? The answers come in various shades – the impact of colonisation over generations; the ground-shifting economic reforms of the 1980s and the possible embedding of suicide in the youth culture.

Some talk about the rising gap between the haves and the have-nots as an issue and say part of the picture includes our high rates of bullying and child poverty.

There was also talk about the existence of a stiff-upper-lip, tough-it-out culture and a societal attitude described as “punitive”.

Plus, some believe we have “little man’s syndrome” – we think we have to be the best at everything. Societal factors, along with individual circumstances like relationship break-ups and financial crises, can play into suicide. A key message that emerged is that societal attitudes need to change – and that people who are struggling need to know “it’s okay not to be okay”.

Another key message is around normalising our thinking. Many people have suicidal thoughts – but a thought is just a thought. A further message is that we need to watch how and what we say to each other, and we need to make sure our children know they are valued.

Some of those spoken to were eagerly awaiting the outcome of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, which is due to report to the Government by the end of October.

The inquiry, which met people face to face at forums and received thousands of written submissions, has been a long time coming and was announced by the new Labour-led Government as part of its 100-day plan. There is strong hope a national suicide prevention strategy will result – and one that has teeth.

The mental health leader

Shaun Robinson, who speaks openly about the fact that he, too, once tried to take his own life, now heads the Mental Health Foundation. He says we did have a national prevention strategy in the 1990s and early 2000s and began to make some headway, but then the commitment to the strategy fell away and the numbers have gone up to record levels.

Robinson points out the suicide statistics don’t include the thousands of people who seriously considered suicide, some of whom made active plans. They, too, form an important part of the picture because they didn’t do it, he says. Many people recover and live meaningful lives.

He says suicide in New Zealand
is driven by a vast array of circumstances. Some suicides relate to a life event, such as a bereavement, relationship break-up or a financial crisis, and some – but not all – relate to mental health issues. But there are also big social drivers for the New Zealand situation. 

For Māori, part of that is the impact of colonisation over the last 200 years because Māori society was essentially stripped of resources and in many cases stripped of identity, he says. Poor educational results, a lower life expectancy and suicide are all unwanted outcomes.

Any kind of violence, including bullying, is another factor. Robinson says New Zealand features in the worst five countries in the world for bullying in schools and that one in five workers report they have experienced bullying in the workplace. New Zealand has other gritty issues to face in our communities, too, including racism, homophobia and transphobia.

“I think this all points to some real issues about how we treat each other. What we need is a systematic implementation of well-funded measures to address these issues.”

New Zealand is not alone in grappling with suicide. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a person somewhere in the world takes their own life every 40 seconds. The WHO says for each adult who dies there are indications there may have been more than 20 others who tried.

Robinson says we are part of a worldwide dilemma with mental health and wellbeing because many countries have never been wealthier in terms of gross domestic product but there are also a lot of signs people have never been so unhappy and less equipped to deal with the challenges that life can throw up.

The former Commissioner for Children

Ian Hassall thinks he can track the increase in youth suicide to something specific – the free market reforms of the 1980s known as ‘Rogernomics’. Hassall is this country’s first Commissioner for Children, turned child advocate and public policy researcher. He remembers back to the 1980s and says the ground shifted.

The rate of youth suicide doubled between 1985 and 1989 – a spectacular rise, he says. “We had accepted certain truths about the country, that it was sound of economics and the futures of young people were soundly based on an economy that had been established over a long period of time. Suddenly, the ground was taken from under our feet.”

Young people couldn’t get a first job: “It’s really about reduced hope and expectations that followed from a period of quite secure hope and expectation.”

Hassall also points out the slogan of the time was “no pain, no gain” and says this period was when terms like “loser”, “suck it up” and “harden up” slipped firmly into our culture. That kind of talking hadn’t existed before, he says.

Hassall isn’t alone in linking the economic reforms to the increase in youth suicide. A Canadian history professor, John Weaver, published a book in 2014 on suicide in New Zealand titled Sorrows of a Century: Interpreting Suicide in New Zealand.

Weaver researched 11,000 inquests from 1900 to 2000. He described the increase in youth suicide as “a particularly cheerless summary of epic cultural and economic changes.”

He also found that male suicide rose and fell with unemployment, peaking in the Great Depression, dropping in the 1950s and rising again in the 1980s and 1990s.

The psychotherapist

Kyle MacDonald co-hosts a radio show called The Nutters Club which opens to the tune ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley. The show, on Newstalk ZB on a Sunday night, was created by former stand-up comedian Mike King (whom we talk to later in this story). MacDonald thinks New Zealanders are a bit “deluded as a culture” because we don’t like to think of ourselves as a punitive society, but we are.

“I think we struggle for lots of reasons – stiff upper lip being one of them – as a culture. Also that ‘harden up’ attitude is actually quite punitive. We struggle to be able to reach out to each other effectively a lot of the time.” He hopes the mental health inquiry will result in a stocktake as to where we are as a country because “the system is a mess, quite frankly”. A multi-faceted approach is needed to address suicide and that requires political courage.

“I think it’s about how we as a society start to really shift our broad thinking about these issues to expressing caring and compassion through policies, which sounds a bit woolly, but I think bullying is a great example.”

That’s because the bully needs help too, MacDonald says, and that can be challenging for people to understand.

“That is one of the cultural, societal attitudes that’s really hard to sell politically but which is really necessary when it comes to looking at bullying in schools, when it comes to looking at child abuse, to domestic violence, to bullying in workplaces. This is a huge issue in terms of suicide and mental health.”

The author

Gareth Edwards, who wrote The Procrastinator’s Guide to Killing Yourself, has a background in psychology, research and suicide prevention. He says French sociologist Emile Durkheim suggested more than 120 years ago that suicide might be a social issue – and not just an individual one. In other words, those who lack a strong social identification would be more susceptible to suicide.

“Some of it [the answer] is if you create a society where people genuinely feel like they belong and they’ve got a meaningful part [to play], then that to me mitigates a whole bunch of mental health issues and suicide,” says Edwards. He claims even New Zealand’s DIY “fix it yourself” culture may contribute to the suicide dynamic. He believes it is significant that research shows some Scandinavian countries, where the quality of living is high, also have unusually high suicide statistics.

New Zealand has that “great, ‘little country’ vibe”, he says, but that can exacerbate suicidal thoughts. “It’s like, ‘if I can’t even be happy in one of the best countries in the world, what chance have I got?’”

Everyone faces existential crises in their lives, he says, but he believes for those who are actively thinking about taking their own life, it’s not about dying: “It’s about wanting to live but feeling that’s not possible.”

The comedian

Ask Mike King if we are all nutters and the answer is, “Yeah, of course we are.” We need to normalise the voices in our heads, says King who can regularly be found these days travelling the country talking to school students about suicide.

Suicide is not complicated, he says. There are three reasons, the first one being people are in pain and they need the pain to stop. For older people, that might be physical pain or the death of a long-term partner; for middle-aged men, it’s usually a broken dream; with young people, it’s usually feelings of invalidation, hopelessness or a broken relationship. Others take their own life because they feel everyone would be better off without them.

For others, it is to hurt because they have been hurt. “At the heart of all suicidal thinking is just people who are hurting,” says King, who says one of the issues for New Zealand is what he describes as a “difficult mentality”.

“We’ve got little man’s syndrome. We want to be the best at everything,” he says.

But that means we can put our young people under ridiculous pressure. “We’ve got kids running round with massive inner critics constantly telling them ‘you’re never going to match up’.”

Adults get the same message from their bosses. “This is the problem we’ve got in our society today.

“We’ve got a whole lot of people out there who don’t feel valued. They don’t feel like anyone’s valuing their thoughts and opinions. They’re constantly being run over and it’s been happening since the day they were born.”

King says that his generation – he’s 56 – are ending their own lives in record numbers “because we’ve held on to this stuff for so long and it’s breaking us down.”

When King speaks to students, he tells them to try to normalise the inner critic. “There’s a great sense of comfort in knowing you’re not the only one who overthinks everything.”

A suicidal thought is just a thought, he says. “It’s an option, that’s all it is. I think about punching the guy in the car in front of me. Do I do it? No. But I’m allowed to think. It’s just thinking.”

Having a suicidal thought doesn’t make you mentally ill, King says, “it classifies you as human. That’s all it is. We need to normalise that thoughts are thoughts.”

He says in New Zealand messaging is aimed at people in crisis but we also need messaging for people whose judgemental comments and actions prevent others opening up and talking about their problems, such as a little kid who tells his father someone at school is thinking some bad thoughts and the father says “that kid just needs to harden up”.

We all need to take a look in the mirror, he says.

“If you look hard enough you’ll see that maybe the little judgements, maybe the little flippant remarks you’re making, maybe the silly wee jokes you were saying, are preventing people from opening up and talking to you,” King says.

The advocate survivor

Taimi Allan, CEO of not-for-profit organisation Changing Minds, says she has lived with suicidal thoughts all her life. She had a happy childhood in Adelaide (she says Australia’s suicide statistics are similar to ours) but in her teens she set herself huge expectations and didn’t know how to handle the pain of relationship break-ups. She feels that young people should be taught to understand that things like relationship breakdowns can be so painful that they may feel suicidal.

When her son was about eight she made sure he knew what could come, telling him when things got overwhelming his brain could have a ‘great’ idea – “It’ll go ‘hey, I know a way out of this’.”

If that thought came, she told him to realise that almost everyone gets that thought and that was the moment to reach out.

Allan says she now recognises that a suicidal thought can’t hurt you. “It’s only if you act on those thoughts that they’re dangerous.” The most powerful thing you can do for someone who is having the thoughts is stick around, she says. 

“You can be like ‘I don’t know how to fix it but that’s okay because I’m still here and we’ll work it out together when you’re ready.’”

Help Box

Text or call 1737 to talk with a trained counsellor

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Lifeline: 0800 543 354  (0800 LIFELINE)

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Call 111 for emergencies

For other helplines, click here.



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