An important issue has lurked on the edges of the limelight for most of this election, sadly shunted out of reach of the main beams by leadership changes or falls from grace.
For weeks now politicians of most persuasions have made policy announcements or passing comments about it, but it still hasn’t had all the attention it deserves.
I’m talking about the topic of mental health in New Zealand. Specifically, our suicide statistics, which set us apart in the developed world for all the wrong reasons.
In fact, our youth suicide rate is so high that it made headlines on the BBC in June. “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,” ran the story. The article focused on what might be behind that rate, and the conclusions punted to the British public were far starker and more blunt that what we are brave enough to say.
“There is a “toxic mix” of very high rates of family violence, child abuse and child poverty that need to be addressed to tackle the problem”, says an expert in the article.
But beyond the foreign news headlines lies yet another staggering statistic; that New Zealand’s rural population suffers from far higher rates of suicide than does its urban one. In fact,”suicide rates are higher in rural areas at 16 per 100,000 people compared with 11.2 for every 100,000 people living in cities”, said yet another report earlier this year.
In total last year, the equivalent of 11 people each week took their own lives in what must be acknowledged as our nation’s mental health plague.
But again, rural or youth suicide isn’t the problem. It is a symptom – a symptom caused by a bad relationship with drink, with partners, or with guns. A symptom of broken families, abuse and poverty.
And that is where politicians and policy announcements come in. So far the subject of suicide has been treated as if it exists in isolation. So far we have heard about how to help mental health services cope through extra funding, or programmes that might be put in place to breed resilience. These are important parts of care, but they don’t address the problems.
Problems like family violence or child abuse or bad relationships that are linked so strongly to our negative mental health statistics. Problems like the breakdown of our communities that leads to isolation and an inability to connect to someone-anyone-who can help.
We are not, in other words, talking about causes, only the consequences.
That simply won’t do.
If we are to start seeing a shift in our statistics, surely we have to get beyond the band aids and start looking at why depression or mental health issues are so prevalent in New Zealand in the first place?
Surely we have to start scratching beyond the surface – no matter how scary it might feel- to find out what stark realities hide beneath.
And surely if strong, healthy, loving families, or connected communities, are linked to low suicide and mental health illness rates, as the Ministry of Health seems to suggest, then we need to start talking about how to nurture these. Yes, we may end up tripping over the toes of some of our deepest values, like the individualism that makes it so hard to hold families and communities together here, but saving lives is worth a little compromise, I think.
We can’t keep kicking the issues around like a political football. Surely when it comes to tackling an issue as serious as suicide, we are all on the same team.
This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz