Suicide: it's time to talk about it

I'm getting heartily sick of it. It might be a brief news item, a sad post on Facebook, a death notice about somebody who died "suddenly", or a friend telling me in hushed tones about a work colleague who killed themselves. But should I even be discussing our country's appalling suicide rate in a newspaper?

According to some experts, publicising the issue can cause more harm than good. But can discussing a problem really make it worse? Though I use that line of defence when my wife wants to discuss our relationship, deep down, I know my argument is futile.

Our annual suicide rate is nearly double the road toll, and more than 50 times the number of New Zealand soldiers killed in Afghanistan since the United States invaded. Yet we seem to keep pretty quiet about it - just as our soldiers returning from World War I didn't talk about their trenches trauma, and were screwed up for generations afterwards.

Though I agree that glamorising suicide can have negative effects, the statistics show that our "don't mention it" strategy isn't working. Can you imagine a health professional saying we shouldn't talk about Aids in the hope that the resulting silence will mean people eventually stop having unsafe sex?

When our road toll was deemed way too high, co-ordinated national action was taken. Causes were identified, government agencies took the lead, and society followed. It became unfashionable to drink and drive, and to not wear seatbelts. Scare tactics in TV ads were used with varying success, but overall, the road toll dropped markedly.

Could we make a similar nationally co-ordinated effort with suicide? Good luck. Though Sir John Kirwan's efforts in "outing" depression were far braver than any dash he made for the goalposts, try to get suicide mentioned on TV and you'll encounter problems. Portray suicide in a drama or soap opera and you'll find more restrictions than for showing sex or violence. Yet the most famous and beautiful soliloquy in the English language is from a young man contemplating suicide. Should we ban Hamlet too?

It is customary for Left-wing columnists like me to blame the Government for the situation. But I'm not going to. I believe every MP in the House is deeply concerned about the issue, especially the recent 40 per cent rise in suicides among people aged 15 to 19. Imagine if inflation rose 40 per cent in a year - people would take to the streets.

John Key's Government has put substantial funding into mental health and suicide prevention programmes. Good on them. The trouble is that the by- product of their economic policies is that unemployment is rising, especially among youth and Maori. The latest suicide figures reflect this rise. Nearly 30 per cent of suicides are by unemployed people, yet they make up less than 8 per cent of the population.

But the Left also have to accept that governments can only do so much and it's our culture that has to change as well. A decrease in official discrimination against gay people and moves by schools to combat bullying are positive steps. But there are so many complex factors with suicide, such as relationship breakdowns, depression, and old people feeling they are a burden. Then there's that awful situation when someone ends their life but no-one knows why.

Perhaps the problem is cultural. In our taciturn nation, we pride ourselves on being strong yet silent types. Many of our biggest heroes have been uncommunicative men of few words - wonderful at the end of a gruelling rugby game but not so great when dealing with a despairing person contemplating ending their life.

But can we openly discuss suicide without slinging mud at each other? Surely if we can be bi-partisan about congratulating our Olympic athletes then we can be united on suicide prevention.

I look forward to a rigorous and respectful national conversation on suicide. I know people say we need "dooeys" not huis, but more talk could get the issue out into the open and positive action could result. Don't be scared to talk about suicide - the life of someone you love may depend on it.


  • Suicide Prevention Helpline 0508 828 865
  • Youthline 0800 376 633
  • Depression 0800 111 757
  • Samaritans 0800 726 666

The Dominion Post