Once Were Warriors 25 years on: Youth suicide rate flat for 25 years - what must change?
Source: https://www.stuff.co.nz/news/111878985/-

2019-06-11 07:01:03

Minutes after arriving home to her two-storey side-by-side misery box, Beth Heke's world shatters. She's found her eldest daughter's body in the backyard. At just 13 years old, Grace Heke had taken her own life.

While Grace's story, told in the 1994 film Once Were Warriors, is fictional, what it highlights - New Zealand's grim youth suicide rate - is all too real.

In the year to June 2018 alone, 668 New Zealanders took their own lives - the highest number since records began.

New Zealand's youth suicide rate - the worst in the OECD at 15.6 per 100,000 according to the most recent data - has remained stubbornly high since it peaked in the mid-1990s.

For 15 to 19 year olds, suicide rates fell slightly in the 2000s but by 2013 they had risen to 24 per 100,000 - about the same as in 1996.

Māori are over-represented in suicide statistics. Between 2010 and 2012, the rate for Māori youth was 40.7 deaths per 100,000 people - nearly three times that of non-Māori at 15.6 per 100,000.

Experts claim the reason New Zealand has failed to bring numbers down is because suicide is a complex issue - there isn't a single solution. However, changing how Kiwis talk about suicide, and reducing social inequality could help make a dent in suicide rates.

Youth mental health campaigner Jazz Thornton said suicide itself was not the problem: "Suicide is a result of the issue. That is poverty, that is housing, that is abuse, that is alcohol, domestic violence".

"I think that's why we've shied away from it for so long, because it's a massive beast and it means having to tear through every system."

She said young people struggled to get support - unless they've attempted suicide they're put on a long waiting list for mental health treatment.

Instead of telling people to ask for help, help must be offered early and without it being asked for.

"That's how I think we see the statistics change, when someone starts struggling, there's already an open relationship and open dialogue and they don't have to wait until they're trying to kill themselves or until they're in crisis," Thornton said.

University of Auckland associate professor of youth mental health, Sarah Hetrick, said having a mental health difficulty undoubtedly increased a person's risk of suicide.

"But when you put that in context, why is that? It's because of wider societal issues like stigma, like people not getting the help that they need, not getting culturally responsive help, not having families that they can turn to, not having enough money to get food on the table," she said.

The current mental health system is "kind of like the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff ... there's more people who need them than are getting them".

More funding and resources were needed and services should be co-designed by people who use them, she said. Young people know what works for them and their voices must be listened to. Treatment must also be culturally appropriate.

"We need young people who feel connected, who are engaged with their families, engaged with their communities, engaged within their schools, have supports earlier on, learning about life, learning about wellness strategies, learning about their culture and identity and being really connected to that."

Ezekiel Raui, youth ambassador at anti-suicide charity The Key To Life, said a push by several campaigners to encourage New Zealanders to talk more openly about suicide had helped to break down the stigma associated with it.

He said: "One thing that we need to consider from here on in is actually, for those people having those conversations, are we equipping them with the tools or resources to have those conversations to make sure that the advice that they're giving is safe - is right for the people who are going through the right time."

He also wanted to see campaigners across the country working together more and sharing knowledge: "We do an amazing job having advocates all over the country, which is fantastic. We have people raising awareness at the same time as we have people providing practical solutions. One thing that we don't see, unfortunately, is collaboration across the board," he said.

Victoria University of Wellington professor of psychology Marc Wilson echoes Raui's position that there needs to be a shift in how we talk about suicide.

Dismissing the efforts by researchers and medical professionals to try to understand and prevent suicide as being of little help can create a sense of hopelessness and discourage people from seeking help, he said.

Similarly, saying self-harm is "crazy" or "freaky" is unhelpful. Instead it's better to talk about self-harm having a function in a person's life - usually a coping mechanism for pain or trauma. Wilson said the discussion should then move to finding other ways of dealing with emotions that aren't harmful.

"If I ruled the world, I'd want to promote people feeling connected to each other, to something. Failing that I'd want to give people the tools to manage when times get tough - my team think of building emotional skills as a broad spectrum antibiotic for mental health and I'd build this into the school curriculum to ensure that young people get that from somewhere," he said.

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