We need to know more about what’s behind NZ's dire youth-suicide rate

by Marc Wilson / 19 July, 2018
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About a year ago, the Government invited consultation on the draft suicide-prevention strategy, to replace the one that passed its best-before date in 2016. The preamble notes that this is important, because our youth rates are the highest in the OECD, and the burden falls heavily on Māori and Pasifika peoples.

If internationally renowned suicidologist Annette Beautrais were writing this, she would also point out that older people are at particular risk. Most people don’t realise this, because of the attention given to headlines relating to youth. And with good reason. If you look at the statistics by age, the rate per 100,000 head of population clearly shows a big spike between the ages of 15 and 24, with a steady decline until a (relatively) small uptick from age 69.

What this obscures is that we’re a young population, so more of those hundreds of thousands of people are in the 15-24 age bracket than in the 69-79 one. When you sit in the same room as such people as Beautrais and Dr John Crawshaw, the director of mental health and the “sponsor” of the national strategy, one of the things that comes up in this context is the extreme loneliness felt by many people, and disproportionately the elderly.

We can certainly do more.

On page three of the draft strategy, underneath the “prevalence by age” graph, a footnote says we know a lot about some vulnerable groups, but “further work is needed to better understand: (a) who within these groups is most at risk of suicidal behaviour and (b) whether other groups on which we currently do not systematically collect data (for example, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex [LGBTI] population) are at higher risk of suicidal behaviour.”

Let me focus on part (b). I approve of the call for further work. In fact, it’s a cliché that any research report has to end with the statement “Further work is needed to …” However, we know enough already to answer the question implied under (b), namely that LGBT (or rainbow) people are at higher risk.

Annette Beautrais.

International reviews suggest that LGB individuals are between three and six times more likely to have deliberately hurt themselves, and that LGB adolescents are most at risk. Indeed, results of the Auckland-based Youth 2000 research programme found that young New Zealanders reporting same-sex attraction were nearly six times more likely to have hurt themselves.

My research team has reported that our non-straight youth are about five times more likely to have hurt themselves, but also that “non-straight” obscures some important differences – bisexual and mostly same-sex-attracted youth were six and 10 times (respectively) more likely to have hurt themselves. This isn’t really a surprise. Overseas studies have found that bisexual youth and adults are typically at greater risk of psychological distress than straight and homosexual youth and adults.

Why? In our work, we found that part of the answer lies in whether a young person worries about their sexuality. Although non-straight youth worry more, straight young people who worry about sexuality also report more self-injury.

This tells us something important: it’s not sexuality per se that causes self-injury, but something else. International experts point to minority stress – the stress that comes from how you’re treated, and worry about how you might be treated, in a society into whose box you may not fit.

This burden is felt most by people who don’t fit neatly into the gay or straight boxes – they’re most likely to be ostracised (or at least less-supported) by both sides of a sexuality continuum.

Need to talk?

Free call or text 1737 anytime to reach a trained counsellor. Or contact Lifeline: 0800 543 354; Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865/0508 TAUTOKO; Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757; Samaritans: 0800 726 666; Youthline: 0800 376 633 or email talk@youthline.co.nz; Healthline: 0800 611 116.

This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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