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.
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.
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 email@example.com 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.
thelowdown.co.nz – or email firstname.lastname@example.org or free text 5626
Anxiety New Zealand – 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)
Supporting Families in Mental Illness – 0800 732 825
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.