Happy New Zealand’s Suicide Problem

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Brian Giesbrecht

New Zealand is a country that is consistently rated on the U.N. “Happiness Index” as a country that has one of the happiest populations on the planet. And yet, amidst all this happiness there is very deep unhappiness as well – because New Zealand is now also the teenage suicide capital of the world.

How can this profoundly unsettling anomaly be explained?

In fact, the answer becomes apparent when the racial backgrounds of the suicidal teenagers are examined. Just as in Canada, where Indigenous youth account for a tragically disproportionate number of suicides, so it is in New Zealand, where their Indigenous population, the Maori, are disproportionately represented in the suicide numbers.

In Canada, the problem of teenage suicide is particularly troubling in remote First Nations communities, which are characterized by high unemployment, and all the social problems stemming from dependency. It appears that youth in such communities are so often adrift, and simply lack a sense of purpose.

There are many possible reasons put forward for this sad phenomenon in New Zealand, and they are virtually the same as the reasons postulated for the high rates of suicide among Indigenous youth here: poverty, colonialism, residential schools, and many others.

There is probably some truth to all of these things.

However, many of these young people – both in New Zealand as well as in Canada – do not fit into these categories. Many are not poor, they are hundreds of years away from colonial times, and in many cases they or their families have no connection with residential schools. (In New Zealand, as in Canada, only a small percentage of the Indigenous population attended boarding schools.)

So, what accounts for those awful statistics?

I suggest that the single most important factor that connects the New Zealand and the Canadian youth population that considers suicide their only option is the feeling that they do not fit into the modern world. They are half way between – neither living a traditional Indigenous life, nor feeling that they are accepted into the life of the mainstream.

These young people have no reason to believe their personal circumstances will change for the better. First Nations communities remain locked into a 50 year old political structure tightly controlled by the federal Indigenous Services/Crown and Indigenous Relations departments, where ordinary FN people are powerless to influence policy decisions directly impacting their lives. Powerlessness is enormously destructive, and where hope for a better future is lost, so are young lives.

If this admittedly simplistic analysis has any merit, what can we do about the problem?

I am quite sure that the answer to the problems of these seemingly lost young people certainly includes helping to instil pride in their culture and language, as well as supporting their community leaders in their efforts to improve all aspects of life in their Indigenous communities.

However, I suggest that the single most important thing we can do to assist them as a society is to try and improve their employment prospects. This includes education at all levels, as well as training. It also includes programs that offer assistance to the young people who want to leave low employment communities for centres where they are more likely to find meaningful employment. The other essential part of the package would be government and community programs for motivated individuals to get the help they need to prepare themselves for the problems they will encounter when trying to become successful in what is to them is almost an alien world.

New Zealand, Australia, the United States, as well as Canada all wrestle with the intractable problem of high numbers of Indigenous teenage suicides.

We all have a duty to find ways of responding to this difficult problem – and that “we” includes non-Indigenous as well as Indigenous people.