Depths of pain

Last updated 05:00 28/12/2013

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Keith Hawke wants to draw attention to a taboo issue that kills more New Zealanders a year than traffic accidents.

The experienced film-maker is making an independent documentary on how suicide affects rural communities. It will feature about 18 interviews with people who have contemplated or attempted suicide, and those who have been affected by the suicide of others.

In the year ending June 30, a total of 541 people committed suicide in New Zealand. Chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean said this year that New Zealand's suicide rate had not dropped significantly since records began in 2007, calling the number of deaths "frustrating".

Records from the New Zealand Transport Agency show that 264 people were killed on the roads in the year to April 30 - about half the number of those who killed themselves.

Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough are part of the Palmerston North coronial region, which saw 47 suicides during the past financial year. There were 51 suicides in the previous year, and the highest year on record was 2010-11, with 60 suicides.

Mr Hawke, who is based in Upper Moutere near Nelson, said people living on rural properties were disproportionately affected by suicidal thoughts because they tended to be isolated.

They had a self-sufficient mentality which stopped them from asking for help, and they had equipment that could be used for attempting suicide.

"The person most at risk of completing suicide is a middle-aged farmer with experience of mental illness," he said.

He wanted to direct his documentary at people who would be close to them - bankers, stock agents, real estate agents, and their families. He aimed to help raise awareness of mental health issues, stress the importance of getting professional help, reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness, provide information on how to get support and, ultimately, decrease the number of rural suicides.

"The conversation has to start," he said. "These people need to know that they are not alone."

Mr Hawke said he was interviewing recovering cardiac patients for an educational DVD commissioned by the Nelson Marlborough District Health Board when it was first suggested that he investigate New Zealand's high suicide rate.

After making the DVD, a truck driver who made a delivery to his studio wanted to discuss his experiences with depression and attempt at suicide. This encounter struck a nerve and Mr Hawke put out a call through his network of friends and acquaintances, saying a surprising number of people responded with stories of their own experiences.

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"I think people like to talk, or like to talk to me, anyway, " he said. "I find that most people I get talking to have got a link."

One rural respondent from Otaki said four of his neighbours had committed suicide. Of the eight vintage portrait photographs hanging on the wall of the office next door to Mr Hawke's studio, three of the subjects had killed themselves.

Mr Hawke said restrictions in press coverage meant suicide was a taboo subject, even though the statistics were shocking.

"If one person on the road dies, it's in the paper, but if 10 people suicide it doesn't make the back page."

New Zealand media are restricted in what they can report on suicides under the Coroners Act 2006, which bars the release of all information except name, age, occupation and finding of self- inflicted death, unless releasing other information would do no harm.

Mr Hawke said the taboo went beyond the media, saying people commonly changed the subject when he said he was working on a film about suicide.

"They say, 'Oh'."

Rural Women New Zealand, Federated Farmers and regional network Mainland Television had been very supportive but other organisations were wary of the subject, he said.

"Lots of people, they agree there's a problem and they're happy to talk about it but they don't want to be associated with it . . . for the main channels, forget it."

Judge MacLean said: "Despite the tremendous grief caused by suicide in New Zealand, suicide remains a taboo topic that is rarely talked about or discussed.

"It is my view that more discussion of suicide and the provision of more accurate information about suicide in New Zealand can only be for the better."

Jackie Edkins, from Rural Women New Zealand, said New Zealand's high suicide rate affected people living in rural areas more than those in the cities. She quoted data from the Ministry of Health showing that the suicide rate for those living in rural areas was significantly higher than those living in urban areas, with rural people experiencing a rate of 16 per 100,000 people versus the urban rate of 11.2 per 100,000.

The coroner's office released figures to Fairfax Media showing 16 suicide cases involving farmers or farm workers were investigated in the 2012-13 financial year. Some of these cases remain provisional pending the coroner's official finding, and some from the previous year are also still open. The toll reached 19 last year.

There have been 136 suicides by farmers or farm workers in New Zealand since 2007 and 129 of these were men.

Rural Women sent out a survey titled, Feeling Rotten, in February to find out how prevalent feelings of depression and anxiety were in rural communities. More than 90 per cent of the respondents were female, and 40 per cent worked in an agriculture-related field. They included orchardists, dairy farmers, agribusiness consultants and vets. About 60 per cent of these were 41 to 65 years old.

According to the survey, more than 40 per cent of respondents who had problems with anxiety felt overwhelmed or over-extended. Financial stress was the top cause of anxiety for 38 per cent, and family issues contributed to the load for 13 per cent of respondents.

■ Youthline: 0800 376633 ■ Lifeline: 0800 543354 ■ Samaritans: 0800 726666 ■ Depression: 0800 111757 

- The Marlborough Express

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