Teens 'let down' on suicide advice

Distraught teenagers losing faith in official mental health services are turning to informal counselling with people who have lived through the hell of suicide by their sons and daughters.

Masterton women Toni Ryan, Trish Wilkinson, Paula Vermeer, Michele Elliott and Mandy Cairns have all lost a son, daughter or granddaughter to suicide, mostly in Wairarapa during 2011.

Since then they have gathered weekly on the porch of Cairns's home to support each other as well as teens who come to them struggling with mental health problems, thoughts of suicide, or grief over peers who have killed themselves.

Wairarapa teens say they open up to the women because Wairarapa District Health Board's Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service is not "cutting it".

"They haven't been through it themselves, and you have," says a Facebook message from a teen to Ryan, along with: "Felt like they were just reading from a script . . . they expect you to open up to a complete stranger [whereas] you talk to us like peers, not idiots."

Two recent coroners' reports support the women's view that the health board needs to do better on the matter, especially with teens who refuse to talk about how they are feeling.

In a report made public last week on the August 2011 death of 14-year-old Jessica Wilkinson, Trish Wilkinson's granddaughter and Vermeer's daughter, coroner Garry Evans said the board failed to ensure that Jessica saw a psychiatrist after being prescribed antidepressants, and called on it to demonstrate it was dealing better with troubled teens.

And coroner Ian Smith in his February report on the death of Toni Ryan's 16-year-old son Sam two months before Jessica died, said more urgent steps should have been taken by health professionals and police to prevent Sam's death and in particular, the DHB's emergency psychiatric team should have been notified.

The coroner said agencies involved should draw on Ryan's experience. But instead, the women say, the agencies are not coping with the problem, which a recent Law Commission report called a "scourge" on the country.

Suicide was not just a health board problem, but a community one, Vermeer said. For example, schools "shut down" discussion of suicide, while parents of teens who killed themselves were often blamed and isolated, she said.

The stigma was hurtful because she fought hard to care for her "sensitive, caring, beautiful" daughter in her struggle with depression, trying to help her access services even after Jessica "clammed up" because standardised questions were "fired at her".

Parents of teens needed more education about suicide, Vermeer said. Jessica was notably happy and calm at a family birthday dinner that evening, but it was only later Vermeer learned this was seen as a suicide warning sign.

The women blamed a lack of funding and training for the poor response from authorities and are forming a national trust to help parents, teens and communities tackle the problem for themselves.

"We're survivors . . . When a group of passionate parents with a cause get together, that's when changes will be made," Ryan said.

Wairarapa DHB mental health and addiction services spokeswoman Amber O'Callaghan said the DHB was carrying out the coroner's recommendations and following protocols developed after a Health and Disability Commissioner inquiry into Jessica's death.

"It is important that communities and agencies work together to help young people and support suicide prevention actions."


New Zealand has long had a high number of suicides, particularly among young people. The suicide rate for people aged 15-24 in 2011 was the second highest among 33 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.

Ministry of Health figures show suicide was the most common cause of death for youth in 2011 with 124 deaths, compared with 86 deaths from the second-most common cause - vehicle accidents.

In a response to a government-ordered review earlier this month, the Law Commission recommended a relaxation in the reporting of suicide to encourage more positive, open discussion about the issue, which it described as a "scourge" on the country.

Lifeline 0800-543354

Samaritans 0800-726666

Depression 0800-111757

The Dominion Post