We need to talk about suicide

Time to do some heavy lifting, parents. Time to open up a conversation none of us want to have: We have to talk about suicide. Because if we don’t, the reality is another 606 people will likely kill themselves in the next year. Going on last year’s just-released statistics, approximately 130 will be Maori and 457 of them will be male. Men are, sadly, much more successful at killing themselves.

As if those stats weren’t heart-wrenching enough, 130 will be aged 10-24. These are our children! Precious lives lost that will shatter hearts and tear families apart. It’s a horrific, disturbing, and growing trend. In fact, New Zealand has the second-highest rate of youth suicide in the OECD.

These alarming figures prompted mental health advocate and comedian Mike King to call for everyone involved in suicide prevention in New Zealand to be fired. “They are failing to do their jobs,” he says. He’s right.

As parents of a young person who suffers anxiety and depression, we can confirm our mental health services are oversubscribed and under-resourced. But there are some committed professionals working valiantly within the system to save lives and it’s crucial that we keep persevering to get our teens get the help they need. Hang in there – be a fierce advocate – because early intervention is far easier than trying to get a chronically depressed adult help.

So what can we do if our teens start to come unstuck? Because, let’s just say it – our greatest fear as parents is that one of our children will kill themselves. Worse than them being heartbroken; worse than them being killed. At least then, there’s someone else to be angry at. We all know in the pit of our guts that coping with the grief of our child taking their own life would be the worst pain of all. So let’s look at what we can do.

We think staying connected with adolescents and teens as they go through the powerful rite of passage into adulthood is key. It’s all about talking, talking, talking. Hanging in there even when you think they’re not listening. Because research says they are.

Try having at least one device-free family meal a week. When your teen cuts off from you, give them space, then circle back in again. Do it time and time and time again. It will involve huge effort with minimal returns! You’ll analyse the sh*t out of monosyllabic responses (particularly from your boys), and be met with hostility – disgust, even – but you’ll learn to suck it up and try again another day.

Before they hit “The Wild Ride” – ages 12-17 years (check out our book Our Boys – Raising strong, happy sons from boyhood to manhood) – it’s really important that families establish healthy communication strategies so parents can stay across the myriad of issues their teens are coping with, including:

  • Hormone tsunamis – somewhere between ages 9-15, boys will have a 20-fold increase in testosterone levels
  • Heightened emotions, lack of impulse control – everything will be bigger than Africa: Friendship bust-ups, heartbreak, grief, failure etc. You’ll need to help them develop skills
  • Peer pressure – your teen will do stuff and take risks their underdeveloped frontal lobe is not capable of thinking through
  • Exploration of their sexual orientation – finding our sexual compass is a biggie (our happiness ultimately hinges on it)
  • Body image struggles – there’s a ridiculous amount on pressure on teens to “look right”
  • Dabbling in alcohol and other drugs – lots of drugs you have never heard of
  • Driving – you’ll have to deal with a driver licensing system that doesn’t allow teens to do the only thing they want to: Drive around with their mates
  • Pornography, music, internet – discuss what they are looking at, accessing and listening to; know what’s shaping their thinking
  • Social media – stay across the balance between living a life and watching other people live theirs
  • Gaming – a potential rabbit-hole if not countered with other interests

If any of these issues are getting away on your teen, reach out for help. Sooner rather than later. Find a good counsellor, and do whatever it takes to get your teen there. A friend of ours bribed her 13-year-old, increasingly aggressive and isolated grandson with the promise of new shoes if he went to a counsellor. He did; they “clicked”, and he never looked back. Got the shoes too! Or go yourself if they refuse to. Model emotional intelligence. Normalise reaching out for help. You’d do it if there was something physically wrong with them.

Our experience is that counsellors don’t always get it right, but keep going until you find one who works in a way that suits you – they are worth their weight in gold! The self-reflective skills learned in counselling will set your teen up for life – it will be the foundation for their future mental health. With focus, care, and resources, we can turn the stats around.

By Ruth Kerr and Richard Aston,  parents to four adult children in a blended family. Ruth and Richard co-authored Our Boys – Raising strong, happy sons from boyhood to manhood based on their 15 years’ experience working at Big Buddy – a social agency that matches well-screened male mentors with fatherless boys.

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