We’re starting to talk about suicide at last, but we shouldn’t be congratulating ourselves just yet, writes ANDREW JOHNSTONE.
“I do not understand this. New Zealand is a beautiful country and it is peaceful and free and here anyone can be whatever they want, and even if times are tough there are lots of social benefits to help you. It is paradise. Why would anyone born here want to kill themselves?”
Finished, he looked to me for an explanation. Usually a fountain of information, I was stuck on this one, but it did get me to thinking.
When I was a kid I heard my parents whispering about a local farmer’s son who had drowned himself in a water trough. I wondered how such a thing was possible. I went down the farm, found a trough, knelt down and put my head under the water. I think I lasted all of 30 seconds before I lifted my head back into the sunshine gasping for air. It seemed so unlikely an act, and I wondered how someone could manage such a thing. The pain of it all killed his mother, or so I heard.
Then I remembered Victor. We went to different schools but I got to know him on the school bus. He seemed such a gentle soul and I always admired him for his kind and gracious manner. One afternoon late into his secondary education he got home from school, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. His parents found him when they got home from milking the cows that evening. The repercussions set the family on a downward spiral.
Then there was this guy in my year at high school who had aspirations to be a poet. I remember talking to him about it when we were in the sixth form. I left at the end of that year and we lost touch. Many years later I looked him up, wondering if he had fulfilled his ambitions, and learned that he was long dead, having hung himself halfway through his first year at university. I have no idea of the impact his act had upon those around him, but it probably wasn’t good.
That we react so badly to suicide is understandable. It is a vast and shocking act, violent and lonely and totally at odds with the impulse to survive and endure. For reasons like this, the world’s religions have long frowned upon suicide, maintaining tight strictures against those who die by their own hand, excluding them from rituals designed to facilitate a positive transition into the afterlife. It’s a punitive act, designed to dissuade the vulnerable, but mostly all it has done is to make the cross-human tragedy of suicide into something shameful.
Even in socially progressive and secular NZ, the official government line has been that we don’t publicly discuss the issue, least it encourage more suicide. The problem is that’s it’s a problem, and nobody wants to hold it up to the light, and who can blame them, it is a complex can of emotional worms and few political parties have the stomach for it.
While youth suicide stands out in statistics, the suicide narrative is a broad one with tentacles reaching out deep into the nation’s social fabric, and no one group is immune. Kiwi farmers (the mythological hard man alone), like farmers everywhere, are especially vulnerable, prone as they are to a particular kind of stress born of debt, fluctuating prices, adverse weather conditions and social isolation.
Over the last eight years 200 Kiwi farmers have died by their own hand. It was a flood event that broke the back of a North Waikato dairy farmer a few years back. Things were just coming right for him financially when an unusually heavy weather event undid years of progress. He hung himself in the hay barn.
Then there are the afflicted, those burdened by mental distress. This includes profoundly sensitive, the anxious, and the oddball and the ethnically marginalised.
Maori feature prominently in suicide statistics, as do Native Indians in Canada and the Aborigine in Australia. Like their indigenous cousins elsewhere, Maori are still struggling with the psychological pain of colonisation; still crawling out from beneath the accumulated debris of war, land loss, and cultural subjugation.
“They should just bloody well get over it,” sings a Greek chorus on social media, further feeding the anxiety of those who feel excluded, unworthy and unwanted. If social media commentary is the benchmark, then threads following media stories about LGBT, the unemployed and depressed tell us that there are a lot of people out there who find satisfaction in throwing about demeaning and spiteful language without properly grasping the psychological harm they do.
Depression remains a misunderstood condition that few sufferers would want to admit to for very good reason. As anyone who has experienced it will know, admission of suffering is mostly met with bafflement, denial and confusion. With standard lines like ‘you’ll get over it,’ ‘you’re too sensitive’ and ‘pull your socks up and get on with it’, it becomes obvious that most of us haven’t got a bloody clue.
We know our mental health services are not up to the task but for those betting the farm on psychiatrists and medication, it is dangerous to absolve responsibility to one group over another in the quest to get to the heart of what ails us.
Love, understanding, acceptance and compassion are just as necessary as medication, and here we consider the role of family and community, both of whom have traditionally failed the vulnerable.
New Zealanders are by and large polite, courteous people who have a problem with the hard emotional stuff. We like things to be nice, hence the stock answer to the oft-asked question ‘How are you? is an unequivocal ‘good’. Anything else challenges the prevailing social contract of staying out of each other’s personal emotional space.
We can bond over sport and chat endlessly about the weather, but when it comes to heady emotional stuff we tend to tune out and fall back on well-worn cliché. Until recently, that is. The tsunami that is youth suicide has become a problem too big to ignore, and we have been forced to face our lassitude head on.
Out on the farms and in the media, in our homes and schools, the conversation is underway and the airing of our thoughts, feelings and prejudices, experience, rhetoric and ideas will help facilitate awareness, if nothing else. The problem is larger than any one solution, but mostly it comes down to valuing people and in this regard, New Zealand has simply not been cutting it.