From the time Cleopatra endured a fatal snake bite, suicide has been one of those incomprehensible things that seems to go against our normal instinct to survive as human beings. Suicide rates reflect a range of social breakdowns and the loss of supportive guidelines that give an individual a sense of family, community, purpose and meaning.
In 2007 New Zealand had the second highest suicide rate among male youth aged 15–24 years (after Finland), and the second highest female youth suicide rate (after Japan) in the OECD. Columnist Garth George commented last week on initiatives among youth in New Zealand to try to take ownership of the problem and to help their friends. Proposals to deal with suicide, particularly among the young, have lately received widespread coverage in reports presented to the Prime Minister by his chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman. George reports:
Rotorua Boys’ High School student Jordi Webber, 17, told the hui [being the national 2011 Kia Piki Te Ora conference held in Rotorua] that he saw a few ways to help to reduce suicide among youth – stamping out bullying, abstaining from alcohol and drugs and building strong, supportive family relationships. “It’s important we have loving, supportive relationships with whanau and friends and focus on that so we can talk about these issues,” he said.
According to World Health Organisation statistics, in the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide and the global suicide rate was 16 per 100,000 in 2009. In all countries, suicide is now one of the three leading causes of death among people aged 15-34 years. Until recently the elderly had the highest suicide rate, but now suicide predominates in younger people in a third of all countries. The average suicide rate among OECD countries remained relatively stable between 1960 and 2006, peaking in the 1980’s and gradually falling again to approximately 11 suicides per 100,000 people in 2006. Korea, Japan, Hungary and Finland have the highest suicide rates in the OECD, with Korea and Hungary’s suicide rates being 21.5 and 21 suicides per 100,000 people respectively in 2006.
Suicide is often considered to be a manifestation of poor quality of life, yet a country’s GDP (an indicator of standard of living) seems to have little or no effect on suicide rates. Professor Stephen Wu of Hamilton College, who has undertaken research on the co-relation between well-being and suicide rates, has commented:
“This result is consistent with other research that shows that people judge their well-being in comparison to others around them. These types of comparison effects have also been shown with regards to income, unemployment, crime, and obesity.”
Consistent with strong family relationships being one of the most important factors, an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported last year on research which found that motherhood appears to protect against suicide, with increasing numbers of children associated with decreasing rates of death from suicide.
“A clear tendency was found toward decreasing suicide rates with increasing number of children after controlling for age at first birth, marital status, years of schooling, and place of delivery,” writes author Dr. Chun-Yuh Yang, Kaoshiung Medical University, Kaoshiung, Taiwan. “The protective effect of parity on risk of death from suicide was much stronger than previously reported estimates. Given that the women included in this study were young (the large majority of suicide-related deaths occurred before premenopausal age) and were among the youngest reported for any country, this finding is particularly noteworthy.”
Having children may protect against suicide because children may increase a mother’s feelings of self-worth. Children may also provide emotional and material support to a mother and provide her with a positive social role. As well, motherhood may enhance social networks and social support. The finding is in agreement with Durkheim’s hypothesis.
I have personally only experienced suicide at a distance, but I imagine it is one of the hardest forms of loss to deal with. It is terrible, and perhaps an indictment on all of us, that people should feel that it is their only way out.