Our beautiful, economically developed, peaceful ‘God’s own’ country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. More than one person takes their own life every day. The problem is bigger than the road toll, which is tragic enough. Since the coroner started releasing details of suicide in 2007-8, never fewer than 500 people per annum have succumbed to the ultimate expression of desperation. Figures indicate suicide attempts may be 40 times that rate. 51 people committed suicide In August last year alone.
Suicide rates are higher in deprived areas, and occurs among Maori almost twice non-Maori levels. NZ has the highest rate of suicide in the OECD for those aged 15-24. It’s disproportionately higher again for Maori in that age range. Last year the suicide rate was highest among those aged from 40-44. It’s clearly a national tragedy, a loss, a waste of good life, a sign that too many New Zealanders feel desperate, unvalued, worthless, hopeless and better off dead.
Governments are too scared to even talk about the issue, and therefore incapable of addressing it. Individuals and families dealing with the effects of mental illness and suicide say there’s a lack of support. Institutional responses are inadequate – even dangerous. There’s a ‘culture of denial’, a failure to take the problem seriously. Sometimes public mental health centres respond so poorly that patients die in, or having left, their care. There’s a failure to listen to the mentally ill and those who love them.
As the measure of society’s wellbeing, New Zealand’s suicide rate clearly shows us wanting. Mike King has described our suicide status as ‘a cancer’, but ‘without the daffodil day’. It’s an issue afflicting all ages, and in addition, hits families, friends and communities at large. It’s a serious indictment on our society. It’s the outward expression of something deeply wrong in how we deal with those challenged by modern life, and in modern life itself. It’s a reflection on both the causes of hopelessness, depression and anxiety, and how we treat and respond to mental health problems. But suicide reflects other pathologies evident in modern New Zealand as well.
The ‘Social Progress Imperative’ reports that New Zealand has a high level of social progress relative to economic performance. We have good access to basic education, fresh water and sanitation, personal rights. The ‘First World’ economic model meets our material needs as consumers– we have a choice of the latest fashions, smart phones and tv or car, but commodity fetishism in exchange for a life of wage slavery provides little of real meaning. It’s no wonder there’s anomie, alienation, disorientation at the crazy, unjust, unsustainable world. And despite the loving support of family and friends, an epidemic number of people choose to end their own lives year upon year upon year.
Indeed, the World Health Organisation reports that 47% of the population in Western countries suffer from depression, anxiety and addiction problems. Clearly economic development and modernisation comes with human and social cost. Other indicators prove this point, and in many ways New Zealand performs worse than most.
We have the fifth worst child abuse record in the OECD. A child is admitted to hospital every second day in NZ, with injuries arising from assault, neglect or mistreatment. 10-14 children each year in this country are victims of homicide. On average, a child is killed every five weeks. Most victims are under five years old, and 90% of them are killed by someone they know. A society that kills its young is an obviously unhealthy one.
This social pathology becomes self-perpetuating. Abused or neglected children are 25% more likely to suffer delinquency, teen pregnancy, low academic achievement, drug use and mental health problems than others. Indeed, New Zealand has one of the developed world’s highest teen pregnancy rates, the second highest abortion rate, and among the most drug use.
A 2011 United Nations report shows us performing among the worst nations in the OECD in terms of violence against women and maternal mortality. One in three women experienced violence from their partner between 2000 and 2010, we’re one of the worst countries in the OECD for sexual violence. A quarter of Kiwi kids have witnessed family violence. 27% have seen physical violence against an adult, mostly in the home. 24% of kids live in poverty, 180,000 go without the things they need.
But New Zealanders work some of the longest hours in the western world.
Despite our general living standards, development levels and modern society, and our reputation as open and friendly people, below the veneer lies a darker malaise.
Our post-colonial, uber-capitalist, neo-liberal system distributes goods and services conspicuously well, so we have cheaper credit and more consumer choice than ever before. But it’s a system that’s ultimately underpinned by a high level of self-harm. Too many individuals feel meaningless, worthless, unsupported and alone. The Government increasingly wipes its hands of collective support or responsibility, passing it to individuals, families, NGOs or the private sector, none of whom are in a position to address the causes of the problem.
We are all more than just consumers or customers, and our value doesn’t hinge on what colour we are, what job we have, or how much we earn. Mental health conditions including addiction, clearly need more understanding and support. Sadly, with our suicide and child abuse rates, our teen pregnancy and abortion statistics, our sexual and physical violence records, individuals within our society pass a poor and hopeless judgement on modern New Zealand every day.