I became interested in suicide in the early 1990s after there had been a leap in its prevalence among young people. The suicide rate for New Zealand males aged 15-19 years had doubled from 16 per 100,000 in 1985 to 32 per 100,000 in 1988. This spectacular and sustained rise had given New Zealand the highest youth suicide rate among the OECD countries.
Public alarm was somewhat muted by the code of journalist practice supported by the Ministry of Health that limited reporting of suicides and by a commonly-held and deep-seated dread of contamination. Nevertheless there was a great deal of speculation on the reason for so many young people killing themselves and what could be done about it.
In reading around the subject of suicide I found there were both psychological and sociological explanations. They were of course not mutually exclusive. It can be said that suicide, as an act against nature, is by definition indicative of a disordered mind but this is tautological and does not advance our understanding. Sometimes there has been depression or the disturbed appreciation of reality associated with a classifiable mental illness. More often there hasn’t.
Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology, studied the patterns of suicide in European countries in the 19th century and published his findings in his great book, Le Suicide: Etude de sociologie, in 1897. He delineated social circumstances that influenced the risk of suicide and explained the greatly differing rates that occur over time, between countries, among religions and so on.
I was at first surprised that many New Zealanders seeking an explanation for the rise in suicide rate among young people did not look at the social changes that were taking place. It may be that going down that path is too hard, particularly with our predilection for believing there is a readily available cure for every ill. Another reason is that it is impossible to establish cause and effect to a standard demanded by science. This leaves the field open to any wild speculation of which there was a certain amount. Nevertheless, it was reasonable to review the changes that were taking place in New Zealand at the time and consider how they might reduce young people’s expectations and hopes in the context of their integration into supportive social structures as understood by Durkheim.
Blaiklock and others undertook to plot the socioeconomic changes that had taken place in New Zealand in the turbulent eighties and nineties against statistical indicators of children’s and young people’s well-being. It is clear that, whatever the cause, children’s and young people’s prospects deteriorated during that time.
I had earlier published a more speculative paper and concluded “We have created a society that many of our young people think is not worth living in but we characterise it as a mental health problem.” That is, their mental health problem. Thus we shift the focus and make it their problem, not ours as a society. As a consequence we seek remedies in mental health services rather than changes in public attitudes and public policies.
Official responses to the increases in numbers of the young committing suicide included the preparation of strategies by the Ministries of Youth Affairs, Health and Maori Development. These contained a mix of mental health and social interventions but little acknowledgement of the contribution of economic policy.
All this has receded into history but we still have a high rate of suicide among our young men – in 2012, 32.3 per 100, 000 aged 15-24, i.e. 107 deaths in that year, the latest for which statistics are available. We have not dealt with the problem.
Perhaps it can be seen as a result of the tides of history and we must admit it will not change until attitudes and with them public policies also change and we make a more meaningful place for all our young people. This is a view that would be reasonable in light of a book I am at present reading. It is by an historian based in Canada who undertook a remarkably detailed study of the coroners’ files on every suicide in New Zealand from 1900 to 2000. He found the high youth suicide rate in New Zealand in the 1980s and 90s so unusual and interesting that he devoted two chapters to discussing its implications.
The overall suicide rate in New Zealand has undergone considerable fluctuation. The peaks are more than double the troughs. There are two peaks - around the Great Depression in the 1920s and 30s and around the period of economic change in the 1980s and 90s (and extending into this century). The peaks differ in their age structure. During the Great Depression the mean age was around 46. In the eighties and nineties the unprecedentedly high rate among 15 to 24 year olds pulled the mean down to around 38.
We have had and continue to have a systemic problem causing the excess of death of young people when compared with other countries and we have been reluctant to admit it. If we are to begin saving these young lives that needs to change.
 Durkheim, E. (2002) Suicide: A study in sociology. London: Routledge Classics.
 Blaiklock, A., Kiro, C., Belgrave, M., Low, W., Davenport, E., Hassall, I. (2002) When the invisible hand rocks the cradle: New Zealand children in a time of change. Innocenti Working Paper No.93. Florence: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.
 Hassall, I. (1997) Why are so many young people killing themselves? Butterworth’s Family Law Journal, 2, 7, 153-158.
 Weaver, J. (2014) Sorrows of a century: Interpreting suicide in New Zealand, 1900-2000. Montreal/Wellington: McGill-Queens University Press/Bridget Williams Books.