School Report: What's hard about growing up in New Zealand?

The challenges of teenage life are many and varied.
AARON WOOD/FAIRFAX NZ

The challenges of teenage life are many and varied.

Teenage life is more complicated than many of us might imagine. Katie Kenny and Glenn McConnell report as part of the School Report series.

Adolescence isn't a life stage many would choose to repeat.

For a small, but sadly significant proportion of young people, it can all get too much.

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Young people (aged 15 to 24) accounted for a third of all intentional self-harm hospitalisations in 2012.

Figures are not easily comparable, but New Zealand's rate of youth suicide appears to be among the highest in the developed world.

How does it come to this?

As part of the School Report series, we set out to examine the hardest things about growing up in New Zealand.

We figured bullying would be the biggest problem. So we asked the Coroner's office to give us every report of a child's death (under 18-years-old) since 2010 where the word "bullying" appeared.

There were 30.

When we analysed the reports, we were taken by surprise.

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"Bullying" was mentioned 46 times. But there were countless other terms that came up more frequently.

"School" came up 287 times, "health" 273, "family" 269, "mother" 201 and "care" 177.

"Work", "alcohol", "depression" and "counselling" all outstripped "bullying" in these reports.

These were a mixture of coroners' words and those of the friends and families who spoke or wrote submissions on the 30 teenagers.

Our rudimentary word count is not a scientific finding. But it does show how a complicated web of things can make life feel too much for some teenagers.

Gabrielle Meyrick – known as Gabby – from Masterton, appeared to be a well-rounded Year 12 student: an animal-lover, keen gymnast and tennis player. But she suffered from mental health issues, exacerbated by stress. She had a history of depression, and self-harm.

She was noticeably quiet while texting on her phone the night she died: September 2, 2012. 

Family members said there had been a Facebook page titled: "I hate Gabby Meyrick", since deleted. Her father, Doug Meyrick, said she received bullying "hate mails". But he didn't blame them for Gabby's death. 

There were other, complex, factors at play: mental illness, sexual abuse, her parents had split up, she had changed high schools three times.

In a suicide note, she said: "It's not that the fact my life got too hard, it's the fact that I couldn't handle it."

She urged family members not to blame themselves.  

"It wasn't the internet or school. Just because certain people are a...holes doesn't mean I'd take my life for them because that's a stupid reason."

She said she was never happy. She said no one knew what was going on in her head.

"I had been this way for three years. All the stress in my life had gotten too much. I could only handle so much."

IT'S NOT ONE THING, IT'S ... EVERYTHING

When it comes to today's teens, "the issues haven't changed, but the context has changed", school counsellor and school counselling portfolio manager at National Association of Counsellors Sarah Maindonald says.

What used to be a tiff at lunchtime is now a spat on Facebook, "and 100 people know about it".

2013 Education Review Office report shows there's growing demand for guidance and counselling in schools and "the issues are increasingly complex".

It found the major problems facing schools, in terms of student wellbeing, arose from household poverty, poor mental health, family dysfunction, bullying, relationships, and drugs and alcohol.

Maindonald has been working with teenagers since before they were online. With a background in teaching, she started her first school counsellor job in 1991.

Students come to her for help with confidence, sexuality, school work, family violence - the list goes on.

"We're upskilling them with skills around communication and problem solving. It's never boring."

While Canterbury is dealing with a crisis of "post-quake anxiety", counsellors around the country are "swamped" with a ratio of one counsellor to 1000 students in some schools. 

Greater awareness of mental illness is contributing, with teenage girls in particular referring themselves after self-diagnosing.

"It's not always bad, though, because it gets them into the office and you can actually give them a framework of information."

 

Troy Macfarlane Adamson's shearing gang mates were shocked when he pulled off his beanie on the evening of February 19, 2011. The 17-year-old Southlander usually wore a beanie at work, and few of his colleagues realised he had long hair.

But after a few drinks, he had "come out of his shell". After a few more drinks, he was slurring his words and stumbling around the dance floor.

Some of the gang started "taking the piss", pulling Troy's hair, saying they would cut it off if he fell asleep. They pushed him, and he fell, breaking a table tennis table. He became quieter after that, but continued drinking alcohol.

It's believed he left the party to avoid further harassment. He took a van, and drove off at more than 100kmh through the township of Roxburgh. He lost control at a bend, crashed, and was killed.

Coroner David Crerar recommended a copy of his findings be sent to the New Zealand Shearing Contractors Federation, for circulation to its members. Crerar said: "I find that this bullying was the reason why Troy Adamson took the action he did." 

According to the Youth '12 health and wellbeing survey, almost 10 per cent of students talked about being afraid someone would hurt them, and 6 per cent reported being bullied on a weekly basis.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson says bullying is a "significant issue" during teenage years.

However, blaming bullies isn't always the answer. While keeping victims safe is a top priority, "we also need to remember most young people who are participating in bullying are doing so because some aspect of their lives is distressing for them", he says. 

"It's kind of a negative way of trying to react to issues. Perhaps they're being bullied themselves. It's a cycle. And it's a community problem – of the school community and of neighbourhood communities."  

There's benefit in teaching young people about "personal resilience" and "responsible relating" to other people, he says.

"Ups and downs in life, stresses in life, relationships working or not working, these are all part of what all young people experience throughout their lives. 

"We really need to be equipping our young people with the sort of skills and moderating their behaviour and responding to stress in useful ways and having thinking strategies and skills that will help them deal with these situations and not allow them to escalate to something that's damaging to them mentally and emotionally."

It was July, 2011. Micaela Pinkerton-Stothers was planning her 18th birthday party. But she was in tears. She was known to suffer mood swings – going from "really happy" to "very quiet".

She told her nana, who she lived with in Tokoroa, about a bullying comment on a Facebook page: it said Micaela had been six weeks pregnant and had had an abortion.

The day after Micaela sent out invitations to her birthday party, she took her own life. 

A friend later revealed he and Micaela had set up the Facebook "rumour page". The pair had stayed up all night making it.

While Coroner Wallace Bain didn't think the unusual form of "cyber bullying" was to blame, he said the use of social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, by young people was a "major issue".

Ministry of Education bullying prevention guidelines state as young people use a range of digital devices, the boundaries between the physical and digital environment have become increasingly blurred.

About 93 per cent of 15 to 24-year-old New Zealanders are internet users, with social media the most common online activity. 

Today's teenagers don't need to read beauty magazines to see picture-perfect bodies. They're in front of their noses; on their phones, on Instagram, in between photos of them and their friends.

Jordan Tuki, who lived with her mother and brother in Christchurch, struggled with school. She skipped classes until she could leave for good.

"She did do really well with school, right until high school," her mother, Rachel Wright said. 

In 2014, when she was 15, she gained a place in a trades and services course at the Christchurch campus of Academy NZ. While she appeared happy and bubbly, close friends knew that when she was alone, she would often cry about being bullied.

Jordan had been hassled on Facebook, by people calling her "fat" and "ugly" and referencing her weight. She thought her family "hated her", because they made jokes about her losing weight which she took to heart.

Wright says her daughter didn't realise how attractive she was.

"She needed to be told a lot how much you loved her. She didn't love herself, which was unfortunate. I do believe that a lot of it is image, kids are cruel, kids can be very cruel, if you haven't got the right top on.

"I think when she first got to school she was [bullied], in the end, I think she ended up being the bully.

"I remember one time she came home because girls had smeared chocolate yoghurt over the back of her white shirt. She was very upset by that. It was quite a racist thing too. She told me that these white girls had said 'now your jersey matches your skin'. I think that's when she started getting into the wrong crowd, and ended up bullying the other kids ... it's like a bit of a vicious cycle sometimes."

A few months before her death in August that year, Jordan posted on her Facebook page: "I hate the world but unfortunately if I leave everyone will have a sook so I decide that if I can't leave I shall create my own little sanctuary on earth so I don't have to deal with the world's f..... up minds it's kind of a win win situation."

Adolescence is one of the most sensitive times in a person's life, according to Dr Frances Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.

A teenager's brain can learn faster, but can also get damaged faster. 

Most of us are in such a rush to leave those years behind, it's easy to forget how hard they are.

For the sake of today's teenagers, it's worth remembering.

 

WHERE TO GET HELP

Lifeline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 111 757

Healthline (open 24/7) - 0800 611 116

Samaritans (open 24/7) - 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Youthline (open 24/7) - 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz

0800 WHATSUP children's helpline - phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.

Kidsline (open 24/7) - 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.

Your local Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) - 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.

For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).

 - Stuff

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