This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…
Warning: This article is about suicide and may be distressing for some readers.
How many New Zealander’s dying by suicide are you comfortable with?
This week we were presented with the tragic and deeply sad news that we lost a record number of people to suicide this year, again.
One person in New Zealand dead, by their own hand, every 15 hours.
By ethnicity rates are highest for Maori. By age 20-24 and 40-44, and when it comes to gender for every woman that dies by suicide, three men do.
It is the largest number of people dead by suicide since we started keeping accurate records, and just a nudge under the worst rate – number of deaths per 100,000 of population – at 12.64. In 2010 – 2011 it was 12.65.
The uncomfortable reality is we still don’t know why we have such an entrenched problem with suicide in this country. What we do know is it’s getting worse. Politicians and officials will try to slice the numbers up in lots of different ways to convince us it’s not, but the long-term trend is slowly creeping up.
We might not know why, but we do know what we’re doing as a country isn’t working.
I have always believed suicide is preventable. I’m not sure it’s possible to do my job if you don’t. The choice to end one’s life is one made under the duress of many factors, individual experiences, trauma, despair and pain. But is also one made in response to life circumstances.
One of the facts we know about suicide, and mental illness more generally, is that environmental factors are at least as influential as individual factors. Our place in the community, feeling we have choices and can hope for a better future, being able to access good quality treatment and support, all make life more bearable and when those things disappear, so too can the desire to keep living.
If we accept that suicide is preventable, then why wouldn’t we want to prevent all deaths by suicide? If there are things we can change, at an individual level, at a community level, at a national and political level, why aren’t we?
Where is the political will? Where is the leadership?
We don’t have a goal for suicide reduction in this country because our Health Minister vetoed it as part of the current planning for the National Suicide Reduction plan. Why? Because he didn’t want it to become a target on which the government was held to account.
While he has subsequently said he is “open” to a target, one is yet to be set or discussed.
I think this tells you where our Minister’s priorities are.
Governing is about allocating resources and providing leadership. Imagine for a moment if as a country we decided we would no longer tolerate losing anyone to suicide. If we all agreed that we would do everything it took to save every single life.
To give anyone who was struggling under the weight of despair all the help, treatment and resources they needed, including fully funding a mental health system that was available to all, whenever and where ever they needed help.
And if as individuals we did everything it took to help our families, communities and loved ones anytime they were distressed.
We would need to transform our society, change our attitudes and open our hearts.
But to do less than target zero suicides is to accept that we should just let some people die, and personally I can’t live with that.
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