New Zealanders and suicide

The uncomfortable truth about New Zealanders and suicide

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…


That is the provisional number of people who died by suicide in the last 12 months, ending June 2018, announced last Friday.

Last week we also saw a very understandable and heartfelt outpouring of grief in response to the death of broadcaster Greg Boyed, but without wanting to minimise his death, that number of 668 means that every 13 hours on average in New Zealand another family, whanau, community, workplace, school or sports club is quietly being impacted with that kind of grief.

Every 13 hours.

It’s natural to point the finger. To want to look for THE answer, the silver bullet that will fix this. But the uncomfortable truth is we are all responsible. Every single one of us.

That’s not to say we’re to blame.

But we are all responsible for the communities, the culture, the environments and the policies, big and small, that fail to help so many people, and more and more, year on year.

Even ultimately well-meaning actions can cause harm. It can be easy, in the wake of the events of last week to feel that people contemplating suicide just need to understand the impact their death will have on those close to them. In fact, a number of pieces were written that said more or less that. And they were well meaning, beautifully written pieces.

But here’s why, if you intend to talk to someone you’re worried about, from this point of view, it won’t help, in fact it risks making things worse:

People who have reached the point where they are considering ending their own lives are convinced EVERYONE would be better off without them. Their friends, their family, even their partners and children.

Ultimately, they often believe they are doing those close to them a favour. The feelings are so intense that reason can’t get through. The best case is they may think you’re trying to help. Worst case: they may think you don’t get it, and stop talking.

It’s also true that it’s a guilt trip. The person who is on the brink is already crippled by guilt and shame, and lumping even a small amount more on top won’t help: it may in fact cause harm.

I’ve talked a lot in my columns about validation, and the unintended harm invalidation can do. Shouting you are loved at people who don’t feel that way, means we fail to listen to how they actually feel.

You can’t force people to feel loved.

But to risk truly validating, to risk daring to try and understand why someone may wish to die is terrifying – and it’s never been more necessary, at an individual and a national level.

We can’t just talk about love and caring for each other. We have to enact it: support, listen and accept our loved one’s point of view, even if that means tolerating listening to them talking about their wish to die.

Stay close. Walk by them. And give them every support they need.

And as a country we need to turn every resource over to understanding this problem. Because we can’t just keep counting the bodies and wringing our hands. We need to be asking of every policy, national and local, of every action, does this cause harm? Does this help us, or hinder us from looking after each other? Does this cause suffering, or does it increase the hope of those who are struggling?

Because if you accept that we’re all responsible, it’s also true that we are all the solution.

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