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Youth Identify Social Suicide Causes & Solutions


Plans to broaden suicide prevention strategy supported by latest NZ research

An Auckland University survey of nearly 400 young New Zealanders contradicts recent claims that New Zealand’s high youth suicide rate is related to an increase in mental illnesses such as ‘depressive disorder’, and shows that young people see little value in mental health services. The most commonly cited causes of suicide were: pressure to conform and perform, financial worries, child abuse and neglect, and problems with alcohol or drugs. Only 1% cited mental illness.

The study, published this week in leading U.S. scientific journal “Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior”, was conducted by postgraduate researcher Edna Heled and senior lecturer in psychology Dr John Read.

The majority (66%) of the 384 17-25 year olds surveyed knew someone who had attempted suicide, and 42% knew someone who had committed suicide. Their recommended solutions included crisis support services located in schools and youth centres, more youth activities, educational programmes to assist young people to discuss feelings and to bolster self-esteem, and financial aid. Neither increasing mental health services, nor reducing media coverage of suicides, were considered solutions.

Dr Read particularly welcomed the fact that Mr Anderton’s recently announced plans to expand prevention efforts ‘aimed to develop broad preventive measures supported by service providers, families, community and government organisations’

Dr Read: “A narrow focus on trying to catch and medicate people just before they kill themselves is unlikely to work.These young people seem to agree with Mr Anderton’s analysis that the roots of our rapid increase in suicide are primarily to be found in societal issues which need to be addressed. The seeds of loneliness, depression and suicide are sown early in life. Merely providing more ambulances at the bottom of the cliff is only a partial solution and not really preventative at all.”

For example, a 2001 study by Dr Read found that suicidality among adults attending a community mental health centre was better predicted by child abuse than by a current diagnosis of depression.

Dr Ian Hassall (Institute of Public Policy) welcomed the study: “The young people, as they often do, see this issue much more clearly than their elders. At last the evasions, denials and false solutions that were adult New Zealand’s response to the spectacular doubling of our youth suicide rate between 1985 and 1988 are being stripped away”.

Dr Read: “Explaining suicide in terms of ‘depressive disorders’ medicalizes what is a social problem, and begs the question of why so many people are depressed these days. The increase in the percentage of New Zealanders taking psychiatric drugs is a cause for concern not celebration (except for drug companies).
If we are serious about a long-term, research-based strategy to reduce suicide in New Zealand we should invest in the broad range of genuinely preventative initiatives identified by the recently launched ‘Every Child Counts’ campaign.”

Dr Read is editor of the recently published book “Models of Madness” in which 23 international researchers present the evidence that ‘mental illnesses’ are best understood as reactions to life events. It also documents surveys from all over the world that the public, like the young people in the current study, understand that mental health problems are caused by social rather than biological factors.


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