Shortland St addresses youth suicide

BIG ISSUE: KJ Apa plays Kane Jenkins who attempts suicide after becoming depressed.
BIG ISSUE: KJ Apa plays Kane Jenkins who attempts suicide after becoming depressed.

Extra staff will be brought in to telephone crisis centres this week as the mental health community prepares for any fallout from a Shortland Street youth suicide storyline.

Cast and crew of the prime-time soap have been told what to do if they are contacted for help, and social media around the Thursday episode will be closely monitored, executive producer Simon Bennett said.

In a storyline 18 months in development, the character of 15-year-old Kane Jenkins (played by Auckland teenager KJ Apa) will attempt to take his life after a slide into depression. Contributing factors include a serious sporting injury and his estrangement from a friend dealing with sexuality issues.

The Mental Health Foundation had advised on scripts, and some changes had been made - including the removal of any specific details around the method of the suicide attempt - to discourage any copycat behaviour, Bennett said.

"Along with romances and disasters, we've always tried to deal with and touch on topical stories, in particular, topical medical stories that resonate within the community.

"New Zealand has a serious problem with suicide, particularly teen suicide."

Provisional data from the chief coroner shows that in the 12 months to June, 529 New Zealanders took their own lives - 104 were aged between 15 and 25.

"For me, it's a story I feel very strongly about," Bennett said.

"Friends of mine have lost children to suicide. It's very tangible, it's very real, and I know there will be a lot of people like me who will have a connection with the situation."

The decision to go public with the storyline allowed viewers to decide whether they wanted to watch or not. Acting on expert advice, there would be no cliffhanger around whether the character lived or died, he said.

"I think if we hadn't worked with the Mental Health Foundation, we would have been a lot more explicit. The whole structure of the serial drama is based around melodramatic high points - tune in to see what's going to happen next - and the writers' instincts tend to push them towards that way of telling a story. In this case, that wasn't appropriate.

"We find out he is alive, and the family are there to help him out of this crisis."

About eight people usually monitored the show's Facebook page, and there would be "a lot of eyes on it this week", Bennett said.

"One of the issues has always been that for some viewers, they find it quite hard to separate the fiction that is the programme, from the reality.

"We don't want our actors, who are completely not equipped to deal with these issues, being put in a position where they're expected to provide answers or help people in trouble."

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements said a special "after Shortland Street" link from the organisation's website would be live from yesterday and Youthline and Lifeline telephone services would bring in extra staff, including some with expertise in sexuality and gender issues.

"Our message to parents would be to talk to your young people, ask them if this brings up anything for them. We advocate asking the simple questions, and listening, without trying to find a quick solution or tell somebody what they should and shouldn't do."

Clements said she was pleased the show had taken the "recovery approach".

"How you get back from those dark places, and how important it is to be connected with other people. Hope and recovery - that's what we need more of, particularly for young people, because life can seem so hard and clear-cut and dramatic and tragic."

Television suicide storylines had been known to be linked to an increase in real-life attempts, Clements said.

One study showed self-poisoning admissions in English hospital emergency rooms went up 17 per cent the week after a television show depicted an overdose.

The storyline could also bring up issues for people who had lost loved ones to suicide, she said.

"This is reliving the incident, and the grief for the people who are still experiencing bereavement. This isn't a quick process. It's a years and years process, and we all have some connection with people who have been in those places . . . knowing they are loved and wanted and people are looking out for them, it's so important that message comes through."

WHERE TO GO FOR HELP

If you or someone you know needs to talk, these are 24-hour helplines:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Samaritans: 0800 726 666

If it is an emergency call 111

For information about suicide prevention, see spinz.org.nz

Sunday Star Times