Today we have the shocking news that suicides may be accurately recorded in New Zealand, and the true figure may be three times higher than the official statistics. The revelation comes at a time when the government has been cutting back on mental health services, and homelessness and child poverty has sky rocketed in New Zealand.
Even though suspected suicides are being recorded as ‘open verdicts’ (despite the deceased person sometimes leaving a suicide note) the suicide rate is still climbing in New Zealand, which already has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the developed world.
The most recent statistics put New Zealand’s suicide rate at about 11 people a week, almost 570 in a full year.
But Timaru GP Dr Oliver Bourke told Fairfax Media coroners won’t rule a death as suicide unless it’s very clear the person intended taking their own life. Dr Bourke said deaths will be classified in a different category, such as an accident, or the cause will go down as undetermined – what’s known as an “open verdict”…NZ Herald
Dr Bourke said because the threshold ruling a death was a suicide was so high, the real number was far off the reported number. “When you get clear-cut cases, there would be at least as many again that a coroner couldn’t give a ruling on because there is a slight doubt. Those sort of deaths aren’t counted as suicide, it’s scary.” Stuff.co.nz
In the year to June 2015 the suicide rate increased from 11.73 to 12.27, up from a previous peak of 12.65 in 2010-11.
Saving face more important than saving lives
In one incidence, a 26 year old female artist from Wellington ended her life, leaving a suicide note on a notepad on her bed after previously calling Lifeline for support on the day she died. However the coroner insisted her death be recorded with an open verdict while her family are dismayed that no-one thought to contact them and tell them she was at risk. She just fell through the gaps of a crumbling system where saving face is more important than saving lives.
the father of the Wellington artist said that not revealing the true statistics prevented people from getting the help they needed from mental health services. “I felt they were stretched and I also felt they were lacking the ability to bring the work that was needed to be done.”
“We weren’t made aware of that call. They regarded it as non-urgent. I would have said that anyone calling that line was straight away a red flag. You don’t call the line because you’re relaxed, it’s because you’re contemplating taking your life. We only found out after the whole event occurred.”
“When we found out the call was made on the Sunday, we thought she must have taken her life then. But we couldn’t contact her because her mobile was turned off. She was isolating herself. If we’d known we would have gone round there,” he said.
Instead, after not hearing from her for two days his wife drove to where their daughter was staying and found her lying dead on her bed.
“It sounds like there is a hell of a lot of pressure on mental health services,” he said.
“But make family a part of the solution.” stuff.co.nz
One can speculate as to the reason why New Zealand’s coroners are under pressure to get the recorded suicide rate down, but playing with the figures will do nothing to reduce the problem. On the contrary, if the problem is perceived to have been resolved less resources will be allocated to treatment of vulnerable people.
And the end of the day, does it all have to come down to money and safeguarding New Zealand’s misplaced ‘happiest place in the world’ reputation?
In another case, a 15 year old Invercargill boy was one of at least four Southlanders who have taken their own lives since March, two of them teenagers.
A mother in Christchurch lost her son to suicide when he was 18 years old, but she has been gagged from speaking about his death. She can’t even be named for fear that it could lead to copycats, she said she picks up the newspaper and reads report of young people who’ve died and thought their profiles were beautiful:
“You see these pictures of beautiful young people and their stories. We couldn’t do that. Not when it’s death by suicide,” said the mum, who can’t be named.
“When we wrote his death notice, we were told you can’t mention suicide. From the get-go, it was like this dirty little secret.”
As the anniversary of his death approached, she wanted to celebrate him. She spoke to a reporter, but then, a coroner suppressed the details around her son’s death.
The family can not be identified because as part of the suppression ruling, her son’s name may not be associated with the mention of suicide.
But not being able to talk about what happened has forced her to bottle up her grief. She wanted to celebrate him. She wanted to stop it happening to someone else’s son or daughter. She wanted public accountability for his death.
“For me, to have lost him and for it to just stop at losing him. I couldn’t reconcile that in my head. There had to be something more. The circumstances around his death were utterly tragic,” the mother says.
“I loved my child. I really loved him. I had a huge amount of pride and I wanted to celebrate him, and to have someone say ‘no, you can’t’. I couldn’t understand it. I want to be able to talk about my boy.”
The mother says the chief coroner’s decision to “muzzle the media” to prevent suicide was not working. Instead, it isolates people. It makes it a dirty word…
With suicide, the shutters come down straight away. The general excuse is it might encourage copycat suicides, there’s always a risk of that but with copycats there will always be an underlying issue to address, like bullying,” he said.
“In this day and age, we’re not winning the war against suicide.”
Bourke says the medical profession “has never been good or open” about the situations that contribute to suicide.
About 25 per cent of New Zealanders will experience depression at some stage in their lives, but Bourke says the medical fraternity “doesn’t treat it properly”.
“It’s really hushed up everywhere. It’s wrong. We should be far more open about it. The medical profession, they cover it up, sweep it under the carpet and hope it will go away,” he says.
“I ask that question, have we the courage? Have we the courage to talk more openly about suicide?”