Young Person Suicide

These notes come from a book of the same name written by Lewis Rivers who is a psychologist with the Special Education Services. His work covers a wide range of traumatic incidents within our NZ schools.

New Zealand Statistics show that from the year 1974 until 1992 the rate of male youth suicide rose from 9.9 to 39.9 per 100,000. The young female suicide rate has also increased although more gradually. In 1992 the rate for this group was 6.2 per 100.000. In summary the statistics illustrate that:

  • About one male in every 3000 dies by suicide between the ages of 15 and 24.
  • About one person (male and female) in every 5000 dies by suicide between the ages of 15 and 24.
  • About five times as many young men as young women will complete suicide.
  • Attempted suicide is a significant public health problem.
  • More young women than young men will attempt suicide.

Statistics may underestimate the true incidence, as there are often family, cultural and religious factors as well as other issues that mean when in doubt, a death may not be seen as suicide. For example a leading cause of young death in young people is road accidents. These may be deliberate in some cases.

Results of a study in New Zealand (Fergusson and Lynskey 1994) confirms the trends and conclusions that have emerged from previous studies of suicide in young persons.

These suggest three general and pervasive features distinguish adolescents who have made attempts on their life from those that have not. First those making attempts have higher rates of psychiatric disorder. In addition, there were frequently other problems of adjustment including juvenile offending, police contact, substance abuse, school dropout and low self-esteem.

Studies show stressful life events over the 12 months prior to any death such as interpersonal conflict (often with parents), personal loss and other external stressors. The most powerful of these are those associated with legal or disciplinary problems.

The occurrence of events that cause feelings of rejection, anger, disappointment and shame are indicators of a high-risk period in a young person's life.

Suicide has been described as a particularly toxic form of death, this relates to the impact of a self-inflicted death on those left behind. Following a death there is always the possibility of repetition. Young people who have experienced loss through suicide have a heightened awareness of this option. This awareness combined with a psychological disorder such as depression, environmental stressors such as personal rejection and or learning difficulties can be a lethal mix.

The addition of grief to a young person with a conduct disorder, is substance abusing or is depressed can be considered extremely dangerous best described as complicated grief. Grief that is shared is healthy and appropriate. Grief that leads to isolation and withdrawal may indicate depression or other psychological disorders that seriously hinder grieving process.

Distorted thinking can lead a young person to the point where they see no other option other than their own death.

  • No one knows how I feel
  • No one else can know how I feel
  • No one else has ever felt the way I feel
  • For others the option of talking about it, is available, but this is not a option for me
  • My circumstances only appear to be like others, in reality they are more difficult and more painful.

These thoughts cannot be dispelled through logical argument. This is the invasive nature of distorted thinking.

The key to dealing with awareness is for a discussion of suicide to be an integral part of the school program.

The issues are that death is permanent, that suicide is not a good choice, there are avenues for assistance, life and their life is valued. The issues are not straight forward.

The permanence of death may seem obvious, however the focus of a young person at risk is that they do not see death as permanent.

Some of the common Myths of Suicide are:

  1. Young people who talk about suicide never attempt or complete suicide.
  2. A promise to keep a note unopened and unread should always be kept.
  3. Attempted or completed suicide happens with out warning.
  4. If a person attempts suicide and survives they will never try again.
  5. Once a person is intent on suicide there is no way of stopping them.
  6. People who threaten suicide are just seeking attention.
  7. Talking about suicide or asking someone if they feel suicidal will encourage suicide attempts.
  8. Suicide is hereditary
  9. Only certain types of people become suicidal.
  10. Suicide is painless.

All methods are very painful no matter what form is used; males tend to use the more violent form, while females tend to attempt suicide through drug overdose. This method has the added danger of doing extreme physical damage to the body and often ends in painful death after the victim has had a change of heart about their wish to die.

Suicide prevention programs are usually divided into three levels: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary.

Primary prevention programs seek to remove or reduce suicide risk factors within a population. Secondary programs look to improve the identification, assessment and help available for those who are at risk of attempting or completing suicide. Tertiary programs are mainly concerned with the aftermath and efforts that should be made to create a safe environment for survivors.

Research into young person suicide is progressing at an enormous rate. As new studies are published, knowledge will be extended.

The Special Education Services, Child, Youth and Family clinics, Psychiatric outpatient departments, and other mental health professionals, and organisations, such as the Learning & Behaviour Charitable Trust NZ are available to listen and help.