GUEST BLOG: Bryan Bruce – Suicide and Economics


In the year 2017 to 2018 , 329 people died on our roads . Almost one a day – which is bad.

But last week we learned that twice as many, 668 New Zealanders, took their own lives that year, the highest rate yet – which is terrible.

The very first documentary I ever made ( in 1988) was about suicide and why the rate, especially in young people at that time, was rising.

It took nearly a year to make because it is a very complex issue and although I managed to unpack a number of factors that contribute to people taking their own lives, by the time that documentary went to air I felt I had only just scratched the surface of the problem.

I’m certainly not going to offer you any simple solution in a Facebook post. Every suicide is an individual act that often leaves in its wake a raft of heart- broken family, friends and loved ones feeling a mixture of emotions ranging from puzzlement to anger.

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However, when I read the alarming new figures last week ( especially the increased rates for Maori ) I found myself reflecting not only about my first documentary but about Emile Durkheim the French Social Scientist and one of the founders of the academic disciple of Sociology which concerns itself with the interrelationship between society and the individual.

In 1897 – yes 122 years ago – he published his now classical study “Le Suicide”

His genius was to recognize there were social pressures at work even in what many may consider the most individual of acts.

With that in mind I did a bit of a search online and found a New Zealand study on Suicide published by the then Department of Health in 2005 . It looked at some of the economic and social factors that may be related to suicide and the graph attached to this post caught my eye.

It tracks the suicide rate in New Zealand from 1948 to 1999 and I think it gives us pause to think about the effect that Economics has on the mental well -being of our citizens .

In the immediate post war years when our economy was incredibly buoyant and there was pretty much full employment (thanks to the sweet- heart deal we had with the UK) the suicide rate was relatively low.

Then in the 1970’s as we began to lose our favoured trading status with Britain, when it joined the Common Market (later the EU) and there were a couple of oil shocks that pushed up the price of petrol, our economy faltered and times got tough.

If you look at the suicide graph for men between 1971 and 1984 it began to rise quite steeply.

Then in 1984 the Lange/Douglas government introduced Neoliberal Economics to be floowed in the 1990’s by National who put Neoliberalism on steroids -especially with Ruth Richardson’s ” mother of all budgets” that slashed benefits

So we waved goodbye to the WE society of the common good and embraced the ME society in which the deregulated economy created a playground for the selfish and where the Devil takes the hindmost.

And what happened? The Suicide rate for men climbed dramatically.


Well Durkheim , if he was still alive, would probably point to one of his categories of suicide and say it was because of “Anomie “ a word he used in several different ways but in this case it would be to describe how the individual becomes disconnected from society .

You will recall the government recently introduced the term “well-being “ to describe a major aim of their last budget and I applaud them for at least acknowledging that a successful economy is not merely to be measured in dollars.

The trouble is our Labour, Green, NZ First coalition government has not shown any willingness to change their economic ideology and tackle the wealth and inequality issue,

Neoliberalism continues to make life easier for the 2 New Zealanders who together own as much wealth as the bottom 1.5 million of us who are struggling to make ends meet.

As the gap between the rich and the poor grows, so the suicide rate climbs.

Let me be clear. I am too well trained in social research to claim that Neoliberal economics causes suicidal deaths. What I AM saying is that there is a correlation here which we ignore at the peril of over 660 lives a year and if there are changes to economic ideology that would significantly reduce that misery for our fellow New Zealanders , then we should not hesitate to do it.

Social science has a habit of eventually proving what we intuitively know to be true. Which, in this case I suspect , is that the tougher life is made in society the greater the number of its citizens who are unable to make ends meet and begin to feel they cannot fulfil their role in their families and communities as they would wish to do.The more people become disconnected from society, the less connected they may feel to life itself.

I once had a T shirt that on the front said “Life’s Tough..” and on the back it had the words “Ask For Help”

If you are currently feeling low and need to talk here are some places you can get some help.

Kia kaha.

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email or online chat
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.
Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7. – or email or free text 5626
Anxiety New Zealand – 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)
Supporting Families in Mental Illness – 0800 732 825

#bryanbruce #endneoliberalism #suicide #newzealand #nzpolitics#nzeconomics

PS some of you may be wondering why the suicide rate for women is consistently lower than for men. Well, there are a number of possible reasons and this Facebook post is already too long. It may simply be that women are a bit more resilient than men but it is likely the method people choose to end their lives may be a more important factor.

Men tend to choose methods from which there is little or no hope of recovery whereas women often choose methods which are not instantly lethal and so there is the possibility of being discovered and receiving life- saving medical attention.


Bryan Bruce is one of NZs most respected documentary makers and public intellectuals who has tirelessly exposed NZs neoliberal economic settings as the main cause for social issues.


  1. Hi Bryan Bruce, are you aware of Angus Deaton’s research in economics that deals with ‘deaths of despair’? This phenomenon is studied more in depth in america, and in britain, where suicide rates have risen over the neoliberal period, particularly amoung those without a college education.

  2. I am sure that some readers will say this comment is sexist but it certainly isn’t meant to be. Back in the cave-man society the roles for each sex were clear. Men took on the role of protecting the family from hostile humans or predators and the high risk of hunting for meat. The women nurtured the tribal young and old and gathered in fruit and herbs. This is what Nature expected of them, and still does despite the world having changed beyond recognition.
    Men no longer hunt and in recent times the role of ‘protection’ has been taken over by the state. For a man, earning a living wage is a more useful asset than being strong or brave. For a woman, the nurturing role remains, though much of it is state controlled, and mechanisation and smaller families has enabled women to fill that role in much less time and therefore take part in the protective role.
    In short the women’s role has expanded to the point where they are almost independent of men. The poorest members of our society are still generally single mothers. They might get depressed but the mere fact of having a child gives the mother a purpose in life, so she is not likely to take the extreme of suicide.
    But where does that leave a young separated man? A likely cause of separation is the lack in skill of the male to provide enough financial support- he may well be unemployed. He will have failed all the role functions that Nature has expected of him. Suicide would look attractive.
    I suggest that the appalling domestic violence in NZ is also fuelled by the feelings of inadequacy of so many of our males.

    • Dennis I think you’re on the money with your analysis. What I failed to notice before posting my comment is that the rise in male suicides began before the neoliberal makeover of the NZ economy. That fits with your interpretation, which includes earlier changes in the role of the state that have contributed to the marginalization of some less-skilled men.

    • Men still hunt. So do some women.
      Give it a try sometime, it’s like tramping but with a whole extra dimension of being part of the environment.
      Plus free range organic food with no nitrates.
      Very good for your headspace.

  3. If you choose one graph to epitomize the legacy of neoliberalism, that might just be the graph.

    Yet this post fails entirely to deal with the pattern that leaps out of the graph – it’s not “people” who are taking their lives at record rates in NZ, it’s MEN. Male suicide rates have almost doubled under neoliberalism, whereas female suicide rates have remained almost unchanged. The argument about choice of method can’t explain this difference.

    So is neoliberalism hurting men more than women? Or is there some other parallel trend that might be responsible for the difference?

    • The left is also hurting men, determined to stamp out any remnants of masculinity in a society without its traditional gender roles

  4. Is our government becoming more like China in it’s abuse of ordinary people’s rights and political harassment which is making people unable to fight back and thus creating growing despondency, as more and more people now understand that to be in a vulnerable position in NZ, is getting worse, not better and we no longer control our own destiny?

    Increasingly bad human rights laws in NZ!

    We have that prisoners can not vote. Even thought it seems there is a much stronger chance that this effects Maori more than other nationalities. However people like Thiel who do not live here can buy citizenship in a few days and then vote here.

    The persecution of Dotcom when copywrite infringement is not a crime in NZ. The illegal use by SIS etc to gain questionable evidence against him which was filmed and live streamed to FBI on behalf of Hollywood. You Tube has already won the test case that found file sharing companies are not illegal so the Dotcom case is a way, using NZ’s gutless and naive politicians to circumvent US laws to provide another test case (using NZ to do the illegal parts and create the ability for Hollywood to win) so that Hollywood can maintain power against newer technology instead of competing and providing better technology themselves.

    Changing employment laws for Hollywood such as the Hobbit law. Now changed back but sends the message our government is happy to change the law to suit power interests to get a movie here, (or Dotcom extradited).

    The financial penalties of those that try to protect their communities and natural environment for RMA appeals. Such as the case of Winnie Charlesworth and Andrew Maehl who now have to pay $30,000 in court fees for losing the Application for Permanent Protection for Awhi Awhi (the 500 yo Kauri to be felled). (even though in the original submission it did not mention that a hundred year old Kauri would be felled in the process, it was buried in a 70 page report that called it high value vegetation).

    Ban of protest offshore if it impinges against oil drilling companies.

    Search and Surveillance act being introduced with new powers. GCSB breaks the laws in the Dotcom case, so they change the law and give GCSB more funding. New powers for non transparent unaccountable organisations.

    Operation Burnham – doctored evidence and defence officials lying to protect themselves during civilian death, while the government goes along with it with another toothless enquiry.

    Quite frankly too many to mention human rights changes in the wrong direction of NZ law to mention, but it is not surprising NZ now has such a high suicide rate.

    Simply put, are not on locals side anymore, but instead work to support those in power that our government inveigle for short term wealth and power and removal of NZ assets.

    And how do you fight and change that?

    We voted in the Greens and they gave away the water to the Chinese bottlers against their own policy so name a few betrayals! Like Labour and TPPA they are obsessed with overseas rights and the only local ones they seem to support are more drugs here for locals and Labour with more drug dealers getting compassionate reason to stay! NZ First sold out at the start of the election.

    Labour may have Jacinda but if she got hit by a bus or left politics, Labour would lose next years election because they are not working for the people of NZ!

    Labour may lose anyway with the Greens lost in action up their own asses like Labour and NZ First but for different reasons!

    • You missed off :
      censorship of the Christchurch terror attack.
      Handing the police control of gun law with Henry VIII clauses.
      Gun confiscation for the law abiding.

  5. Correlation does not mean causation.

    The increase in suicide rates can equally and more validly be attributed to:

    The increase in the number of fatherless boys born to solo mothers on welfare (there is international evidence to support this)

    The increase in drug use causing paranoia.

  6. Last year 240,000 temporary work visa holders were approved, on top of 34,000 new migrants. Then there are the tourists of around 4 million, coming each year, and who knows how many are not here for tourism but actually living as relatives of migrants and doing unpaid work like child care.

    So it is pretty hard to compete with those figures for jobs, housing, health care, disability, ACC, etc…

    The future ain’t bright because the people coming into NZ are not going to be qualified for well paid jobs, in fact well paid jobs are disappearing from NZ apart from the bloated executive type jobs… you know head of DHB that has $200k in unexplained expenses, or CEO of ANZ who gets millions off discounted houses. Or absence of personal responsibility and blaming others is the way to get ahead, aka Gabriel Makhlouf.

    Not only that, with all the braying about how much better it is not to get a tertiary education, as NZ needs so much unskilled labour (they are even joking about it on government adds for the construction industry, aka the 30yo sister who has a degree and still lives at home and is unemployed).

    This is what Rogernomics has provided us with. People crippled with large student loans, making domestic enrolments not go into further education. Wages that are actually going down in real terms while the cost of living is sky rocketing in NZ.

    Even if you don’t have a student loan you have to compete with 240,000 plus other applicants on temporary work visas (and the tens of thousands of new residents) or if you are a tertiary student with so many people cheating, it must be demoralising to work hard, but have other’s cheating on such a wide scale in NZ.

    The other day a friend was saying how astonished they were because they came into contact with year 3 nursing students, and it was an eye opener to see that many had communication/comprehension skills so poor they were difficult to understand and could not communicate to patients. However they had been allowed to get so far into their degree and passed even without being able to speak the language. On that trajectory, we will soon have a lot of nurses with a NZ degree who can’t speak/understand English well enough to communicate with patients and doctors.

    Probably makes other students feel pretty depressed to work out that their NZ degree ain’t going to be worth the paper it is printed on soon.

    Number of fraudulent visa applications to New Zealand nearly doubles

    International College of Auckland fined $40,000 for immigration fraud

    Van Beynen: Exposing tertiary cheating is its own reward

    Academics: ‘We’re pressured to ignore cheating and pass incompetent students’

    The work force is skewed because a lot of NZ workers now are just doing the minimum and going through the motions to get the residency or a degree not because they actually want to do the job or the degree and are not suited to the degree or work they are undertaking.

    NZ used to have enviable education skills… but Ministry of Education figures just released show the number of domestic students has taken a significant dip, with just 8.6 percent of adult New Zealanders enrolled in tertiary education last year compared with 12.5 percent 10 years ago and around 11 percent at the turn of the century.

    The biggest demographic decline has been among men, whose numbers in tertiary education have gone down from 11.3 percent in 2009 to 7 percent last year.

    Male enrolments at New Zealand polytechs have dropped 41 percent in 10 years….

    It’s the men killing themselves the most here…

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