Adolescents at Risk: Causes of Youth Suicide in New Zealand

Article excerpt

A United Nations report, The Progress of Nations (UNICEF, 1994), recently ranked New Zealand as having one of the highest teenage suicide rates among industrialized countries. The aim of this paper is to examine the environmental-social factors that could explain this phenomenon. First, demographic information on suicide, gender, bicultural differences, suicide attempts, and methods used is presented. Second, the literature on youth suicide in New Zealand is reviewed. Third, a psychosocial analysis considers the causes of suicide, specifically the developmental features of adolescence and changes in New Zealand society currently challenging its youth. Fourth, prevention, intervention, and treatment initiatives, adapted to the New Zealand situation, are examined.


New Zealand is similar in size to Great Britain (270,500 square kilometers; New Zealand Official Yearbook, 1994) and consists mainly of two islands - North Island and South Island. It has a population of 3.5 million and is bicultural: 9.5% are Maori or of Maori descent, with the majority being mainly of European descent. However, the society is becoming increasingly multicultural with the immigration of Pacific Islanders and Asians (Public Health Commission, 1994). It is estimated that half a million are aged 15-24, the age group considered to be at greatest risk of committing suicide.

Suicide in the 15-19 age group has increased over the last twenty years, from 5.8 per 100,000 in 1970 to 15.7 in 1991. In 1991, the suicide rate for the 20-24 age group was 31.3 per 100,000, with the increase much higher among males than females (Aldridge, 1994). Thus the peak suicide rate occurs in the twenties, not in the teenage years (Joyce & associates, 1994). Nevertheless, for the joint 15-24 age group, the suicide rate is highest. Suicide is very rare under age 15 (Townsend, 1993; Joyce & associates, 1994). [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 1 AND 2 OMITTED.]

Suicide is the second most common cause of death for young people, the first being motor vehicle accidents (Joyce & associates, 1994). Of the leading causes of death in the total population, youth suicide was ranked tenth in 1989 (Townsend, 1993). Although official suicide rates are evidence of the magnitude of the problem, they do not give a complete picture of this phenomenon. For every teenager who is recorded as having completed suicide, many more have attempted it. Also, even though statistics show increasing rates of suicide among young people, they do not show that suicides are probably underreported, because coroners often have difficulty deciding whether a death was due to suicide and may not report it as such.

Males aged 15-19 commit suicide at the rate of 26.9 per 100,000, while the rate for teenage girls is only 3.6 (Aldridge, 1994). Youth suicide therefore remains a predominantly male problem (Townsend, 1993). But while young males tend to successfully kill themselves, Tan (1991) indicates that significantly more women attempt suicide, with those aged 17 and 18 being the most vulnerable. Women are more likely than men to be admitted to a hospital for a suicide attempt, and women in the 15-24 age group are more likely to attempt suicide than are women in other age groups (Tan, 1991; Disley, 1994).

Males are more successful in committing suicide because they use more irreversible means (Disley, 1994). Aldridge (1994) reported that between 1980 and 1990, there were clear gender differences in the methods chosen by young people. Males used hanging, strangulation, and suffocation, followed by firearms and explosives. Females chose hanging, strangulation, and suffocation, followed by poisoning.

In comparing the bicultural groups, since 1970 the suicide rate for non-Maori males aged 15-24 has generally been higher than that for Maori males (Public Health Commission, 1994). Both male groups show an increasing trend, with a dramatic increase beginning in 1985 (Disley, 1994). …