As a community, we need proactive, positive strategies to reduce youth self-harm and suicide.
According to a 2017 Unicef report, New Zealand has by far the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world. Other recent research shows nearly 1 in 20 New Zealand students attempt suicide over a 12 month period. Around 1 in 10 report self-harming during their teenage years.
This loss of life means that the topic is too important not to talk about, but parents and teachers are often concerned that talking about suicide or self-harm may put ideas in young, impressionable minds.
Teachers and parents are often concerned about putting ideas in students’ heads. They worry talking about it more will lead students to swap strategies and compare wounds, and whether there are resources to support additional disclosures.
Why do we need to talk about self-harm and suicide?
A prevailing myth about self-harm is that people do it for attention. If we follow this logic, we can assume that we will naturally identify those who are engaging in self-harm or considering suicide. Overwhelmingly, research does not support this idea. Only around half of young people who self-harm disclose the behaviour to anyone. Young people often go to great lengths to hide self-harm.
It can be very hard to admit self-harm or suicidal thoughts. People may fear a negative response or worry that information will be spread without their consent. Some young people may not view their behaviour as a problem. Self-harm is often a way of trying to cope with overwhelming emotions, and some people may feel that this strategy is “working”.
Teachers and parents might be on the look-out for warning signs for self-harm or suicide, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or experiencing stressful life events. However, our recent research highlights that not all young people who self-harm fit this profile. Yes, we need to keep an eye out for self-harm, suicidal behaviour, and other mental health difficulties, but unfortunately, this is not enough.
Will discussing self-harm and suicide encourage it?
- do not increase self-harm thoughts or behaviours;
- reduce suicide attempts and severe suicidal ideation;
- improve knowledge and attitudes; and
- increase help-seeking behaviour.
Ongoing research is needed to strengthen the evidence for prevention programs, taking into account youth perspectives and measuring suicide and self-harm related outcomes. At this point in time, research findings indicate that schools can talk about self-harm and suicide positively and safely when approached in the right way.
How do we have these conversations safely?
First and foremost, we need to build supportive communities so that young people are willing to disclose self-harm and suicidal thoughts. A teenager spends 30+ hours a week at school, but being around people does not automatically provide a genuine connection, where each young person feels safe and supported. This isn’t an easy task to accomplish, but it can’t be neglected among the hustle of programs and policies.
So we need to implement evidence-based self-harm and suicide prevention programs. Research and practice indicate that programs should be framed within broader mental health programs that focus on protective behaviours and strengthening resilience. Programs should be available to all students, not just those who appear to be at risk. Programs should educate and empower, and should not include graphic images or graphic descriptions of behaviour.
It is likely that discussing self-harm and suicide will result in identifying new cases that were previously unknown to the school. While this is a positive outcome, this can place a greater burden on already stretched welfare teams. Schools can prepare for this by ensuring staff know the protocols following disclosure, and establishing good relationships with external services.
It’s not just staff that need to know how to respond. Teens are most likely to disclose to a friend rather than an adult. When disclosing to an adult, it’s more likely to be a parent rather than a counsellor or teacher. This means all members of the community need to know how to respond in safe and supportive ways.
People should be aware of support available outside school too. Online services may be less intimidating for those reluctant to seek help.
Where to get help:
1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or online chat
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
What's Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.
Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.
thelowdown.co.nz – or email email@example.com or free text 5626
Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)
Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825