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Youth suicides numbers show a worrying reality

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Praneeta Mahajan
Hamilton, April 19, 2023

Suicide is a tragic and devastating issue that affects many individuals and families in New Zealand. The country has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the developed world, with statistics indicating that approximately one in five young people in the country will have suicidal thoughts at some point.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Health, suicide is the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24 in the country. To address this crisis, experts have been advocating for a comprehensive approach to teenage suicide prevention in NZ.

What the numbers say

New Zealand’s youth suicide rate for adolescents aged 15-19 years was reported to be the highest of 41 OECD/EU countries (based on data from 2010).

The ‘Youth19 survey’ conducted in 2019 in the Auckland, Northland & Waikato regions by researchers from The University of Auckland, Victoria University of Wellington, University of Otago & Auckland University of Technology surveyed 7891 young people revealed that:

  • 23% had significant depressive symptoms, up from 13% in 2012.
  • 6.2% of young people had attempted suicide, and the rate for females (7.3%) was higher than males (5.0%). Serious thoughts of suicide and attempted suicide occurred more often in areas of high deprivation. The rate for males had increased since 2012.
  • 19% had difficulty getting help for their emotional concerns.
  • 53% of same- or multiple-sex attracted students reported significant depressive symptoms. Half (50%) of this group reported that they had self-harmed in the past year.
  • 13% same- or multiple-sex attracted students reported they had attempted suicide in the past year.

Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry published an article which found high mental health needs in 2019 and sharp increases between 2012 and 2019, particularly among female, Māori, Pacific and Asian students and those living in socioeconomically deprived neighbourhoods. Ethnic and socioeconomic disparities have widened.

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Risk and preventative factors

The Ministry of Health identifies risk factors known to increase the likelihood of suicide and protective factors known to reduce the likelihood. These can occur at individual, relationship, community, and societal levels. Certain populations or people might have more risk factors than others, while many experience cumulative risk factors.

Protective factors include – • Good whānau and family relationships • Access to secure housing • Stable employment • Community support and connectedness • Secure cultural identity • Ability to deal with life’s difficulties • Access to support and help.

Risk factors include – • Bereavement by suicide • Access to means of suicide • Sense of isolation • History of mental illness, addiction or problematic substance abuse • Previous suicide attempts • Experience of trauma • Exposure to bullying.

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Early Intervention

Dr Sarah Hetrick, a clinical psychologist and mental health researcher, said that “Prevention is the key to reducing youth suicide rates.” Dr Hetrick stresses the importance of early intervention, highlighting the need for mental health services that are accessible, affordable, and evidence based.

One way to promote early intervention is through school based suicide prevention programs. Professor Annette Beautrais, a suicide prevention researcher, said that “Schools can play a vital role in identifying and supporting students who may be at risk of suicide. School based programs can provide education on mental health and suicide prevention, as well as offer support services for students who may be struggling. These programs can also help reduce the stigma around mental health issues and encourage students to seek help if needed.”

However, effective suicide prevention requires a comprehensive approach that involves not just schools but also healthcare professionals, community organisations, and families. Dr Hetrick said that “Suicide prevention requires a multi-level approach that includes primary care, specialist services, and community-based initiatives.”

The importance of community based initiatives that provide support, resources, and education on suicide prevention becomes pivotal in addressing the issue.

One such initiative is the Zero Suicide approach, which aims to eliminate suicide deaths by providing comprehensive care for individuals at risk. Dr Annette Loughnan said that “The Zero Suicide approach is a comprehensive and systematic approach to suicide prevention that involves all aspects of care, from prevention to intervention to postvention.”

The Zero Suicide approach emphasises the importance of identifying and addressing suicide risk factors, providing evidence based treatments and interventions, and involving families and caregivers in the care process.

Underlying Causes

Another important aspect of suicide prevention is addressing the underlying causes of suicide, including mental health issues, social isolation, and economic hardship. Professor Collings said that “Suicide prevention needs to go beyond addressing the symptoms of mental illness and also address the social determinants of health, such as poverty and social isolation.”

This sentiment is echoed by Dr Hetrick, who said that “Social support and connectedness are protective factors against suicide. We need to focus on promoting social connectedness and reducing social isolation.”

Community-based programs that promote social connectedness, such as peer support groups and community events, can play a critical role in suicide prevention.

Finally, it is essential to recognise that suicide prevention is an ongoing process that requires ongoing attention and resources. Dr Hetrick said, “We need to invest in suicide prevention efforts, including research, education, and intervention programs.”

This sentiment is echoed by Professor Beautrais, who said that “Suicide prevention requires ongoing attention and resources, including funding for research, training for healthcare professionals, and support for community based initiatives.”

Youth involvement

Another critical component of suicide prevention is the involvement of young people themselves. Dr. Burns said that “young people are the experts on their own lives and experiences, and we need to involve them in the design and delivery of suicide prevention interventions.”

This includes initiatives that promote youth leadership and empowerment, such as peer support programs and youth led mental health campaigns. By involving young people in the development and delivery of suicide prevention interventions, we can ensure that they are relevant, effective, and sustainable over the long term.

Teenage suicide prevention in New Zealand requires a comprehensive and multi-level approach that involves schools, healthcare professionals, community organisations, and families. It requires a focus on early intervention, social connectedness, and addressing the underlying causes of suicide. With the right resources and support, we can work together to prevent suicide and promote the mental health and well-being of young people in New Zealand.

Praneeta Mahajan is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Hamilton.

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