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Youth Suicide in NZ: A Discussion Paper

Youth suicide in NZ: a discussion paper

Over recent months the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor together with the Departmental Science Advisors from Health, Education, Social Development and Justice have been preparing a discussion paper on youth suicide. This paper was provided to Ministers this week and is released today.

The paper discusses the multiple factors involved in youth suicide and possible and evidence-based approaches to prevention. It points out the very different context in which young people now live their lives and the challenges of the transition from childhood to adulthood.

It points out that youth suicide often has different drivers from suicide at later ages. Māori youth appear at particular risk. Many young people have suicidal thoughts, some commit self-harm, a lesser but significant number attempt suicide and a much smaller but unacceptable number commit suicide. Predicting the latter at an individual level is very difficult. Often rather than a primary mental health problem, suicide represents a developmental lack of resilience leading to diminished self-control, increased impulsivity and exaggerated emotional responses in the face of the inevitable stressors that young people face – these stressors include a range of emotional factors as well as those social and contextual factors that can lead to a sense of low self-worth and despair. For young people the world is very different and is changing fast compared to that of previous generations – for example the impact of social media. The role of alcohol and illicit drugs in both reducing resilience and enhancing impulsivity are important factors. While challenging, reducing access to alcohol is seen as an important preventative measure. Inappropriate and negative peer relationships are further factors. Community and family environments, including issues of deprivation, social disintegration and family violence all create contexts in which suicidal and self-harm behaviours are more likely.

Thus the paper makes the point that youth suicide is more than simply a mental health issue and that, with what we know at present, the focus must also include an emphasis on primary prevention starting from very early in life. This means promoting resilience to the inevitable exposure to emotional stresses and building self-control skills in early childhood and primary school years, by using approaches that we already know about. It means promoting mental health awareness and ensuring that there are competent, well-trained and adequate adult and peer support systems in secondary schools. Because some interventions may be ineffective or can even do harm, all interventions must be evaluated. The report supports the need for public discussion and discussion with young people but this must be done in a form that does not increase the risk of contagion or put young people at greater risk. This must be backed up by a capacity to find and rapidly support those children and young adults who are in mental distress and ensuring that the needed interventions and therapy are early and effective. It means considering ways to reduce the exposure to and the impact of those contextual stressors, especially improving the sense of community self-worth in those communities where it is low.

The report can also be found at this link

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