This is an opinion piece on an issue very close to my, and many others’ hearts. I acknowledge there are varying opinions, perspectives and understandings of suicide. This post is my way of sharing my own, which has been moulded from my personal experiences and knowledge.
Suddenly, as the world so ignorantly continues, a family is broken, a community dismantled and too many are left asking a haunting question, why? That person who, from the moment of conception fought for their life and for their place on earth, could no longer fight.
Each of our minds has been wired to ensure we fight for survival. So why did five hundred and seventy-nine New Zealanders make the unfathomable decision to end their own life last year?
No doubt most of you reading this will have been, or will be, forced to ask yourselves tough questions like this at some point in your life, as unfortunately suicide and mental illness are far from uncommon. Out of 40 OECD countries included in UNICEF’s recent report on teen suicide, New Zealand was ranked the highest. This statistic saddened, but far from surprised, me.
On the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s website there are some broad suicide prevention measures stated. These being; access to community and health resources, social connectedness, and the capacity to cope with life’s difficulties. I want to discuss each of these with you in an attempt to grasp this issue that affects so many of us.
Access to community and health resources
Inscribed on the toilet cubical walls and posted up on the notice boards around University are messages like “it’s ok to talk”, “you’re not alone” and “seek help”.
Evidently, we all want people to start talking more. Unfortunately, there are concerns that at a national level the problem isn’t being dealt with properly.
Isn’t it ironic that we are constantly telling each other it’s ok to talk and that suicide is not an option while simultaneously failing to properly support and develop the services that are perhaps the most crucial part of the equation?
In March of this year “The People’s Mental Health Report” (PMHR) published the experiences of hundreds of Zealanders working in or using our mental health system. One of the key recommendations from this report was an urgent, thorough and independent inquiry into the current Mental Health System. Soon after its release the Government created a five-year plan based off the opinions and recommendations of academics and health professionals. There was no review mentioned and those with first-hand experience within the system were “left out of the conversation” according to the PMHR’s author (read my article on this here).
The Government recently announced an extra $224 million dollars of its annual budget to be invested into the mental health system over the next four years. When you’re a poor University student like myself that sounds like A LOT of money. However, funding has failed to increase at the same rate as demand for mental health services since 2008, and continues to fall far below the necessary level for a country with such alarming suicide and mental illness rates.
Yes, an increase in funding is always something to celebrate but, when over five hundred New Zealanders are losing their lives each year,
throwing money at a collective group of people and telling them to fix a problem that runs far deeper than the pockets of central government isn’t necessarily going to work.
Ensuring that any money that’s invested is going exactly where it needs to go seems only feasible after a full review of the system.
A research paper published in 2012 identified that when quality health teams are put in place within secondary schools, the rates of student depression and suicide can be reduced by up to two-thirds. That’s some research you’d think would have been well and truly taken advantage of. Prevention at an early age is both important and evidently beneficial, yet 8/10 secondary schools remain deprived of this.
Labour has come up with an incredible Youth Mental Health Policy. If this issue is close to your heart, I recommend reading Jacinda Ardern’s speech from Labour Congress this year. She could not have articulated such a taboo, heart-wrenching topic more eloquently and accurately while announcing this policy.
It’s time we tell the government that our people’s mental health means more to us than tax cuts.
The Ministry of Health’s second prevention factor is Social Connectedness.
Although suicide and mental illness have been present within societies throughout history, their factors and influencers are constantly changing in response to a world that is, well, constantly changing.
Without regurgitating what we’ve all read and experienced about social media and its impact on our generation, we must acknowledge that it has altered our social structure substantially.
The ‘social connectedness’ of today varies greatly from the ‘social connectedness’ of past generations. We spend a vast amount of our time in an invisible online world where we stay ‘connected’ to one another. This time is borrowed from that of which past generations would spend staying connected in the ‘real world’. But, that’s the thing, this invisible online world has become our real world.
It seems that we now struggle to figure out if our connections are genuine and, more importantly, viable when we are at our most vulnerable.
While most of us are lucky to be in a state of mind in which we understand suicide isn’t an option, people suffering from a mental illness don’t often share this same state. We cannot expect those people to perceive thoughts and make conscious decisions in the same way we do.
At this time of vulnerability, being surrounded by people who are capable of influencing positive decisions and thoughts is crucial.
Let’s invest in our communities, Whānau, families and health systems to prove that we are committed to building strong foundations for social connectedness. Because this is where these vulnerable people need to be able to go for help.
The capacity to cope with life’s difficulties
During my five years at a small, Catholic secondary school I witnessed the effects of three suicides within our school community. Three families were dismantled and an entire community left bewildered on three separate occasions during such a short time period.
These three young people became part of our alarming statistics and we became some of the voices left behind.
I still remember the stagnant feeling of helplessness and confusion that echoed throughout the school. Teachers and students alike didn’t know how to react or feel, and this was merely a reflection of the stigmatisation and misunderstanding of mental illness that was so prominent at the time.
Thankfully, I believe a lot of tangible progress has been made since then in terms of the way we acknowledge and deal with mental illness. We see people like Mike King and John Kirwin encouraging us to break through this stigma and misunderstanding, challenging us to talk about it (so here I am, trying my best to talk about it).
As well as our communities, Whānau and families, it is so important that there is quality, reliable, and accessible services to assist those in their most vulnerable states.
If our school had a quality, comprehensive health team in place, I don’t know if it would have prevented these suicides, but maybe it would have given those young people a better chance. Let’s give other’s a better chance before it’s too late.
We need to educate young people about the importance of mental health. Rather than insinuating school grades and sports achievements as the defining factors of their lives, we need to encourage them to look after their mental state.
With all this being said, there is still so much to learn about mental illness and suicide and how we are best to deal with it. When we talk about suicide and mental illness we need to be careful not to glorify it. That is, we need to focus on how we can rid their discussion of stigma and focus our efforts of ensuring we create places, services and skills to cope with these issues that plague our country, rather than simply talking about it and thus simply justifying its existence.
Suicide truly is an awful thing that solves nothing and merely shifts the pain of one person onto the lives of those left behind, and that will never be acceptable. And it shouldn’t be accepted, ever.
We shouldn’t accept the fact that here in New Zealand FIVE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY NINE people took their own lives last year. What we should do is everything in our power to stop this from even being a statistic. It shouldn’t be shattering our communities, dismantling our Whānau and families, and we shouldn’t have to ask why.
I’m always keen to develop my understanding and challenge my perspectives so feel free to contact me if you have any comments, suggestions or questions.