As long as I can remember (which goes back to the late 90s in NZ) there have been road safety campaigns running, trying to tackle a road toll that peaked at 843 in 1973. It was a terrible problem then, and these campaigns have evidently had a positive effect. Putting across the message that drink driving and speeding and driving tired all kill has made such a difference to the road toll, and the police and Land Transport should rightly be proud of their efforts.
Around five hundred people have died by suicide in New Zealand every year for at least the last decade. What have we been doing in the area of suicide prevention?
There’s the National Depression Initiative, which is a good step, but it has nothing like the penetration of the drink-driving and speeding campaigns. Depression is still a cultural minefield, and it’s going to take more than just John Kirwan talking about it to change the way we think about it. It’s a step in the right direction, but what’s next?
The truth is, we don’t have anything anywhere near equalling the road safety campaigns in terms of expenditure or effectiveness. Maybe it’s not fair, because suicide prevention is so much more expensive. The most important thing that helps prevent suicide is good mental health care, something that we straight-up do not have. Other measures to help prevent suicide, such as good social health and welfare programmes, are equally expensive.
It’s not just the expense, though. There’s not the same will to reduce the suicide rate that there is to reduce the road toll. There’s not the same awareness of the reality of suicide, not the same public horror at its toll. It’s not reported much, not highlighted. It’s swept under the rug. Is that wise? Does it prevent more suicide if we just don’t talk about it? I don’t know the science, but I do know that people are just not aware of how bad the situation is.
I wonder if hiding suicide away is something that we do because we’re still ashamed of it, because it’s still some dirty family secret. That attitude needs to change, and if it’s being perpetuated by the official policy about how suicide is reported, maybe that needs to change as well.
I’ve always felt like suicide needs to be addressed in a more frank and honest manner, with less secrecy and shame. Knowing that we lost several people one weekend to suicide could be treated like a bad weekend on the roads – a message to look after yourself and those you love. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe the science says that hiding away the hard truths of suicide keeps the rate lower. I don’t know. I just feel the need for more honesty in the process.
Preventing suicide is complicated and difficult, and I don’t think we’re doing enough toward it. It’s a social dirty secret, and it needs bringing to light.