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NZ tops the youth suicide rankings in the developed world. It is a disgrace. And we can fix it

I once attempted suicide, writes Shaun Robinson of the Mental Health Foundation. And I got help. While all of us call for something to be done about our shocking suicide stats, here are three things you can do if you or people you know are going down that path.

Yesterday was not a proud day to be a New Zealander. A UNICEF report gave a blistering review of the state of child wellbeing in Aotearoa and, like many of you, I felt angry, frustrated and sad.

New Zealand continues to have the highest rate of youth suicide in the developed world and nearly one in five of our young people is living in poverty. This is a national disgrace, and they’re not unrelated.

As a parent, I read the report wondering about the kind of future my country offers to my children. I wondered how young people can read reports like this and see a future for themselves that offers hope and opportunity.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of how we fix this problem (and it is fixable), I want to first talk to you if you’ve been feeling suicidal and you’ve lost hope that our country can ever help you to recover.

I’ve been in your shoes. I have been deeply suicidal, in fact, I once attempted suicide. And I got help. My family and friends pulled together to support me, I got professional support and now I live well, truly well, with bipolar disorder.

There are hundreds of thousands of stories like mine, hundreds of thousands of people in New Zealand who have recovered from feeling suicidal. They live full lives and are glad that they are still around. There are more of us than you might think. You’re not alone.

Now, for suicide prevention. Firstly, let’s bust the myth that suicide isn’t preventable. Most people who attempt suicide don’t want to die – they just want their pain to end or can’t see another way out of their situation. As so many of us can attest, if we can find another way through when things are at their worst, we can go on to live well.

Many of the suicide prevention initiatives taking place around the country are very successful, and are helping people find connection, purpose and hope. I agree with the UN that we need to evaluate our successes, learn from our failures and invest heavily in supporting those who need it most.

There’s not one single cause of youth suicide, and prevention is a job for everyone. To start to see a reduction in our suicide rates, we need to not only look at providing better care for people in distress, but we also need to address systemic issues that drive poor mental health: poverty, racism, homophobia and transphobia, family violence, unequal access to opportunities, disconnection from culture and isolation. These are pretty heavy issues, but they thrive only with our consent. To prevent suicide we need a national commitment to tackling these problems on an individual, whānau, community and government-level. We can all contribute to an Aotearoa where each of our young people feels like they belong, have a purpose, and have hope for their future.

You can join us in advocating for more effective crisis services, adequate staffing in mental health services and treatment that provides options and takes into account each person’s needs and aspirations.

We’d also like to see a stronger commitment to teaching young children the skills they need to build and sustain positive mental health and wellbeing, like mindfulness and positive communication. Mental health should be taught in every school to build resilience and teach young people how to recognise when they need help and what to do about it.

But what role do you, personally, play in preventing suicide?

While the causes of suicide are complex, the solutions don’t have to be. Here are three things you can do today to help prevent suicide:

Keep an eye out, then act: Most people have pretty good instincts when it comes to knowing when the people in their lives are going through a difficult time. If you notice that someone you care about is withdrawn, angry, isolated, talking about death or suicide and seems to feel worthless, it’s time to step in. Tell them what you’ve noticed and ask how you can help. Don’t be afraid to ask them directly if they’re thinking about suicide. Listen without judgement to their answers. If they have a plan to take their life they need urgent help – call the mental health crisis team or take them straight to the ED of your nearest hospital. If they’re not in crisis, keep talking to them. Find out what kind of support they’d like and do your best to help them get it. Don’t keep secrets – if there are adults or professionals who need to know, tell them immediately. Read more: Are you worried someone is thinking of suicide?

Take the load off someone else: Feeling isolated and like you don’t belong is one of the biggest risk factors for suicide. Feeling discriminated against puts a huge burden on people and if they’re already going through a hard time, it can feel impossible to keep going. Luckily, it can be pretty easy for you to take that load off for them. Make an effort to include people who eat alone at lunchtime or seem to always be by themselves. Invite someone round for dinner or offer them a place to stay if possible and needed. Give a hug or a genuine smile. Find a way to include those who are left out, and make an effort to understand and accept people who have a different background or experience to yourself. These relatively small acts of connection can make an unbelievably big difference.

Ask for help: Give yourself a chance, and talk to someone. I know it’s hard, but reaching out and talking about how you feel or what you’re thinking with a trusted friend, whānau or family member really can make a difference. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help, it’s the bravest thing you can do. I know that most of the public talk about our mental health system lately has represented a system in crisis and it would be understandable if you were discouraged from accessing professional support. I don’t deny the system has problems, but 80% of the people who receive mental health treatment in New Zealand are happy with the care they receive. You deserve care and support – ask for it. Go to your GP or go straight to your local ED. Call a helpline. Don’t ever give up or believe that you aren’t worthy of help. You are.

Read more: Having suicidal thoughts and finding a way back

For more information about suicide prevention, see www.mentalhealth.org.nz/suicideprevention

Where to get help:

Lifeline – 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Depression Helpline  – 0800 111 757 – this service is staffed 24/7 by trained counsellors

Samaritans  – 0800 726 666

Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. Text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz.

0800 WHATSUP (0800 9428 787) – Open between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.

Healthline – 0800 611 116

For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email info@mentalhealth.org.nz


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