Why is Wairarapa's suicide rate twice the national average?

Sam Ryan and mum Toni in the last photo taken of him before he died.
SUPPLIED

Sam Ryan and mum Toni in the last photo taken of him before he died.

Wairarapa is perhaps more accustomed to being noted for its views, its coastline, and its thriving agriculture. Now it also has the unwanted claim to a suicide rate that is twice the national average.

It's a region that has enjoyed strong economic growth, and the future looks positive.

For some people, though, this has not been enough, as the pressures and stresses of life have taken a toll.

In rural communities, it is easy to become isolated, so a focus now is on maintaining contact and lessening the stigma ...
KATE TAYLOR/STUFF

In rural communities, it is easy to become isolated, so a focus now is on maintaining contact and lessening the stigma around depression and mental illness.

Masterton woman Toni Ryan, who lost her son Sam to suicide in 2011, said she wants everyone to understand that people who die by suicide are not selfish, they simply want the pain to end and feel as though there are no other choices.

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Ryan recalled yelling at those dealing with her son to please help her baby, because she was terrified he would kill himself. Then comforting herself with the thought that suicide was something that happened to other people.

"Sam knew how much we loved him, surely he would never go through with it? I was wrong.

"Those that were working with Sam were wrong. Suicide does happen, people that talk about it are not just attention-seeking; suicide doesn't just happen to other people.

"The moment I found my son was the moment my understanding of suicide changed."

By taking the time to learn the signs and indicators that someone might be feeling this way, acknowledging their pain as real, and offering them support to find the help they needed, you were giving them back choices that did not involve anyone dying, she said.

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"Too many excuses can be made when we talk about funding. But as a community, if we take a few minutes each day to notice the people around us, that will create a community where everyone feels safe and loved."

Masterton-based suicide prevention co-ordinator Rachel Hope said Wairarapa had the highest per capita suicide rate in New Zealand for the past two years, and now services were making a co-ordinated effort to bring this down.

Isolation seemed to play a big part in rural areas, because people sometimes had little contact with others for days on end, she said.

"There is a big problem with suicide in rural Wairarapa for men. The aim is to try to encourage them to communicate without fear and try to find ways to make sure they feel like they can talk openly about their feelings.

"Across the region, in the towns as well, there are day-to-day problems like stress over housing and employment which can overwhelm people. People tend to isolate themselves, to cut themselves off.

"We have had cases where people have only been found dead because their mail started piling up."

Pyschologist and farmer Sarah Donaldson is part of the East Coast Rural Support Trust, providing support to rural people facing any kind of adversity.

Donaldson said what happened sometimes was that the very strengths that made farmers able to do their jobs well, such as independence and resourcefulness, could limit their ability to ask for help.

"We are also providing training to help people more easily identify when someone is struggling. We want to equip people so they can help each other. It's about having a community approach.

"There is also a fear of the stigma involved with being thought of as not able to cope, or seen as a weakness to be struggling emotionally.

"We are trying to get the message out there that the way they are feeling relates to their body being in distress, and it is separate from your personality, so it is OK to ask for help and get a plan to help get their health back on track."

 - Stuff

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