Kiwi teens' death rate second highest in Western World

SHOCKING DEATH RATE: Wellington teenagers Tegan Workman, Kirstie Stevens and Leanne Smith thought they lived in a safe country.  When told that New Zealand had among the highest death rates for young people in the developed world, the friends were shocked.
KENT BLECHYNDEN/FAIRFAX NZ
SHOCKING DEATH RATE: Wellington teenagers Tegan Workman, Kirstie Stevens and Leanne Smith thought they lived in a safe country. When told that New Zealand had among the highest death rates for young people in the developed world, the friends were shocked.

Being a teenager in New Zealand is more dangerous than in most other developed countries, a new study has shown.

Kiwi teens are more likely to die young in car crashes or by suicide than in almost every other developed, high-income country, with New Zealand's overall adolescent death rate second only to the United States.

In a four-part series co-written by Professor George Patton, of Melbourne University, the medical journal The Lancet has published an analysis of the biggest health risks to young people aged 10 to 24 globally.

Though statistics published this week show youth suicides in New Zealand had dropped by more than a third since 1995, the country still had the highest male suicide rate among 27 countries analysed.

Among young women, the suicide rate was the fifth highest.

A league table of road deaths – the single-biggest killer of young people worldwide – showed only the US had more young women die on the road, and road deaths among young men in New Zealand were the fourth highest behind the US, Greece and Portugal.

The US had the highest overall mortality rate, because of its high rate of violent deaths and deaths due to road trauma.

Otago University's Professor David Fergusson, from the department of psychological medicine, said the reasons were not fully understood, but the high rate of vehicle accidents could reflect New Zealand's young driving age of 16.

The New Zealand Transport Agency tightened the practical-driving-test regime this year.

The reasons for higher youth suicide rates were largely unknown, but could be alcohol-related, Prof Fergusson said.

"What distinguishes some of the countries with high youth-suicide rate [New Zealand, Finland, Ireland] is that these are all small liberal democracies with high rates of alcohol consumption."

The authors said the world's 1.8billion adolescents faced more challenges than past generations, with more exposure to alcohol, sexually transmitted diseases and problems from social media.

While the explosion in social media such as Facebook and Twitter had good points, it also gave rise to issues such as online bullying and "sexting", or sending explicit images by mobile phone.

The best ways for countries to improve adolescent health were by improving access to education and employment, and reducing risk of transport-related injury.

MORE ATTENTION NEEDED ON SUICIDE PREVENTION

The Mental Health Foundation is calling for a focus on suicide prevention among young Maori males, as new statistics show overall suicide rates are falling but are still too high.

A new Health Ministry report for 2009, the latest available, showed New Zealand's male youth suicide rate to be the highest in the OECD.

That is despite falling from a high of 44.1 per 100,000 in 1995 to 29 per 100,000 in 2009. In total, 506 people died by suicide in New Zealand in 2009 - or 11.2 people per 100,000, down from 11.8 the year before.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements said the statistics showed there needed to be greater attention given to meeting the needs of Maori men and youth in particular. The total Maori suicide rate was 13.1 per 100,000 population in 2009, 23.6 per cent higher than the non-Maori rate of 10.6. Between 1996 and 2009, both Maori and non-Maori male rates went down, but no trend was evident among females.

The Maori youth suicide rate of 28.7 per 100,000 population was 83.9 per cent higher than the equivalent rate for non-Maori.

Youth suicide rates for both Maori and non-Maori seemed to trend downward over time, but Maori rates were highly variable because of the small numbers involved, the report said.

Ms Clements said factors that helped protect young male Maori against suicide included strong community connections and strong cultural identity. "It's good for our mental health to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in life."

'THERE'S KIDS THAT NEED HELP'

Wellington teenagers Tegan Workman, Kirstie Stevens and Leanne Smith thought they lived in a safe country.

When told that New Zealand had among the highest death rates for young people in the developed world, the friends were shocked.

"I knew that we were quite dangerous on the road and that we have heaps of crashes and stuff, but I didn't know about the suicide thing," said Tegan, 16, yesterday.

"That is such a worry. I think it's really sad, because we're so focused on getting out of the recession but there's kids that need help," Kirstie, 16, said. "We need to find the cause of it, what's making people sad and feel like they need to do that."

Support groups where young people could come and talk about their problems would be a good start, they said.

"Somewhere you didn't need parental permission to go, because some people wouldn't want their parents to know.

And make sure it's free, because teenagers don't have money," Kirstie said. Suicide should be talked about more openly, Tegan said. "Put it in the news more, because we don't know about it. We always hear about what's going on in the world but we don't know this is happening in our own country."

The Dominion Post