Is our suicide conversation helping or harming?

I stood alone in a cemetery, staring at a teenager’s grave. The headstone was covered in baseball caps and necklaces – colourful tributes to a life cut short.

I’d travelled to Kawerau, a former milling town on the East Coast, to report on a spate of youth suicides that had rocked the town.

Back then, in 2011, life in this beautiful community was tough. Kawerau had the highest proportion of working-age beneficiaries in the country. Children were growing up in homes marked by poverty and desperation.

In a single year, 12 young people died in suspected suicides – and almost all were between 14 and 18 years old.

As I walked through the cemetery, I was baffled by the pattern of deaths. Many of these teens had already had experienced the heartache caused by suicide – before deciding to end their own lives.

As I interviewed locals, I met a Māori warden who offered an insight that I’ll never forget.

“School children are allowed to attend the funerals of their friends,” she said. “I have heard them say, ‘Wow, this tangi’s neat, eh!’ We’ve glamourised it.”

Some teens grew up with little affirmation or validation, the kuia explained. They only saw a schoolmate’s life being celebrated when they were lying in a coffin.

She believed that marking suicides in a very public way – and paying tribute to the teens who had died – could put other vulnerable youth at risk.

It could support a mistaken belief that it’s okay to end your life.

Her view is backed up by research on “suicide contagion”.

Studies show that a single death can have a ripple effect, including through news reporting and social media.

A suicide may trigger suicidal thoughts or behaviour in vulnerable people, even if they didn’t know the person who died.

Of course, sweeping this topic under the rug is not an option. We gave suicide the silent treatment for decades, and it didn’t work. New Zealand ended up with one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world.

In 2023, some people still believe that conversations about suicide are being hidden, suppressed or shut down. “Why aren’t we allowed to talk about it?” I hear them say.

Actually, no one’s stopping us from talking about suicide. But are those conversations useful – and hopeful? Or are we causing more harm?

Last month, I was astonished by a coroner’s findings about a Lincoln University student who ended her life in a hostel.

“A coroner has released the harrowing details of a teenager’s last months before she died by suicide,” Stuff’s report began.

The article, which named the dead woman and included many photos from her teen years, offered a glowing tribute to a “passionate young environmentalist” and “over-achiever” who developed a “growing determination to end her life”.

The Herald went further, outlining the steps she took to “meticulously plan her death”. Continue reading

  • Jehan Casinader is a Wellington-based journalist, speaker and mental health advocate.

Where to get help

  • In a life-threatening situation, call 111.
  • 1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor.
  • Anxiety New Zealand 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)
  • 0800 111 757 or text 4202
  • Lifeline 0800 543 354
  • Rural Support Trust 0800 787 254
  • Samaritans 0800 726 666
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Yellow Brick Road 0800 732 825
  • Web chat, email chat or free text 5626
  • What’s Up 0800 942 8787 (for 5 to 18-year-olds). Phone counselling available Monday-Friday, noon-11pm and weekends, 3pm-11pm. Online chat is available 3pm-10pm daily.
  • Youthline 0800 376 633, free text 234, email, or find online chat and other support options here.
Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.