Pictured above: Atapo Huriwai (pictured August 31, 2017) remembering her son Trevor Huriwai who died in 2015 from suicide. The shoes are from a recent suicide awareness campaign - 606 pairs of shoes representing the lives lost in 2016.

The elephant in the room?

by Mike Cooney

“Think of New Zealand and what likely comes to mind is beautiful nature – fjords, mountains and magnificent landscapes, vast, empty and endless.

“But for years already, the country has been struggling with another form of isolation – depression and suicide.

“A new report by UNICEF contains a shocking statistic – New Zealand has by far the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world. 

A shock but no surprise – it’s not the first time the country tops that table.

The UNICEF report found New Zealand’s youth suicide rate – teenagers between 15 and 19 – to be the highest of a long list of 41 OECD and EU countries.

The rate of 15.6 suicides per 100,000 people is twice as high as the US rate and almost five times that of Britain.

Why New Zealand?”

(Excerpt from BBC News feature: “What’s Behind New Zealand’s Shocking Youth Suicide Rate?” – June 2017)

IN THE PAST 10 DAYS, OUR small east-coast Coromandel town has had to deal with tragedy that no town, or family should have to deal with. Ever. Sadly, a 19-year-old male took his own life, no longer able to face fears he was wrestling with at the time. Just a day or two later, another young man who knew the first guy, tried to end his life also. Then two days ago, a popular 16-year-old boy (and close family friend), unable to cope with the nasty comments and bullying directed at him via social media, overdosed on a cocktail of prescription drugs. Thankfully, he too survived.

But that same night, while he was recovering in our small provincial hospital, six others – mostly young people – were also admitted for attempting suicide. Let me just repeat that: in just one night, in just our small provincial hospital, SIX other people were admitted for attempting to end their own lives.

Of course, this isn’t just a youth problem: suicide victims cross all age, gender, ethnic and social groups. But (and it’s a big BUT) our young people – particularly our young Māori and Pasifika men – have been hit hardest. And it’s a statistic in which we’re WAY ahead of the rest of the world.

The 2016-2017 year saw 606 – that’s six hundred and six – sons, daughters, mums, dads, cousins, aunts, uncles (you get the picture) take their own lives. And over the past three years, it’s been increasing. 

The BBC News article asks the question that should be on all our lips: Why New Zealand? And it’s a good question! Why New Zealand? We live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. We’re listed as one of the countries in which people throughout the world would most like to live. And we’re recognised as one of the safest. But we have this dark stain on our perceived 100% Pure image.

There are numerous theories as to why our suicide rates are so bad and what the contributing factors might be. Like:

• a toxic mix of high rates of family violence, child abuse and child poverty

• one of the world’s highest teen pregnancy rates

• one of the world’s worst records for bullying in schools

• the impact of social media use amongst young people

• issues around cultural identity and the impact of colonisation (suicide rates among Māori men across all ages are 1.4 times that of non-Māori)

• the stigma attached to depression perceived as weakness (New Zealand has long had a culture of ‘harden-up mate’ – especially amongst Kiwi men)

• hugely under-resourced health services (demand for Mental Health Foundation services has shot up 70% in the last decade, and suicide-related police callouts have gone up 30% in the last four years alone – yet funding hasn’t increased to meet the demand).

Whatever the reasons – and it’s more-than-likely a combination of all the above, plus other factors – we can’t just sit around waiting for our politicians to fix it. Because they won’t. They can’t.

My 13-year-old daughter made the comment to me last week: “How come we see and hear so much information on road fatalities – and all the ways we can reduce it, like stopping speeding and drink driving, but suicide has nearly twice the number of fatalities each year, and we hardly hear anything?” Which I thought was a very perceptive observation! 

For many of us, the topic is taboo. Or in the ‘too-hard-basket’. Or clouded by mixed messages. Some of us believe we shouldn’t talk about it for fear that it might become ‘normal’ or lead to copy-cat attempts. Trouble is, if we don’t talk about it, suicide then becomes ‘the elephant in the room’ – a very large, very obvious problem that we all pretend doesn’t exist.

Surely, the more we talk … the more people become aware of the warning signs … the more accessible the resources … the more parents feel equipped to support, love and encourage their kids … the more we feel okay talking with someone about our depression, anxiety or inner torments … the more likely we are to seek help … and the less likely other families will have to face the painful loss of a loved one. 

I don’t have all the answers. Nor does the Government. But, throughout history, the most effective change has come from the grassroots. It has come out of hurting communities that’ve had enough – people who’ve decided to do something themselves, rather than sitting around waiting for someone else.

I suspect the answers lie with parents more than the politicians. And it doesn’t matter how big or how small our grassroots impact is – as long as we’re doing something! Grapevine may not be trumpeting from the rooftops or taking the nation by storm, but we are (as our motto says) “giving families a lift”. And, over the years, we’ve heard from more than one person who has told us that a timely article in Grapevine has even helped save their lives, or the life of someone near and dear! 

The point is, I CAN make a difference … YOU CAN make a difference … together WE CAN make a difference. 

We can start by simply caring … by being more aware … by listening … by noticing when friends, family members and kids (our own and others’) are hurting … by asking the hard questions (and not getting sucked-in by the typical Kiwi answer: “Yep, I’m all good, thanks!”) … by trusting our intuition … by knowing where to go for help.

It doesn’t take much to be informed. And it doesn’t take much to make a difference. A glimmer of hope is often all that’s needed.


• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 – 24-hour phone counselling.

• Youthline: 0800 376 633 or free text 234 – 24-hour phone & text counselling services for young people.

• Samaritans: 0800 726 666 – 24-hour phone counselling.

• Tautoko: 0508 828 865 – support, information & resources to people at risk of suicide, their family, whanau & friends.

• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to 11pm).

• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm-6pm weekdays).

• The Lowdown:– website for young people ages 12 to 19.

• NZ Depression Initiative: (for adults), 0800 111 757 – 24-hour service.

In an emergency: If you or someone you know is at risk, please call 111. 

For information about suicide prevention, see