|By Steve Tripp
Bachelor of Nursing Student (article found on the Internet)
One of the more disheartening health issues in New Zealand today is youth suicide. For the
15- 24 year old age bracket it is the second leading cause of death after motor vehicle
crashes and it is increasing dramatically.
Between the years 1955 and 1989 the male youth rate increased by 630% while there was a
100% increase in the female rate over the same period. New Zealand is not alone in facing
this rise in youth suicide rates. It seems to be occurring throughout the western world,
but New Zealand and Australia are unique in that our youth suicide rates are higher than
our overall suicide rates (Brett, 1993).
So what is happening to our young people that is leading them to take their own lives now
more than any other time? In this paper I will address the question of what factors
contribute to youth suicide. I will begin by looking at suicide using a sociological
perspective and then look at individual psychological factors that appear to be present.
Then I will see how these two approaches fit together and how this can apply to us.
To understand the sociological perspective on what influences suicide it is helpful to use
the work of Emile Durkheim. In 1897 he published his work on suicide in which he studied
the suicide rates in countries of western Europe and found social phenomena which matched
the patterns of those rates (Giddens, 1971). He found three social causes for suicide
which he called egoism, altruism, and anomie. The first two are concerned with the degree
of integration of members of society, that is , the degree to which members share common
Egoism occurs when the social bonds attaching people to society slacken and so the bond
which attaches them to life also slackens. They become isolated from society and Durkheim
(as cited in Lukes, 1973) recognised this excessive individualism in highly educated
people, unmarried men, and people without families. He also saw this as a result of
capitalist ideals. Altruism occurs at the other end of the scale when people become too
attached to society. They lose any individual perspective and their will becomes fused
with that of the whole group. The common goal of society then takes over.
Durkheim recognised this in the pre-enlightenment societies of the middle ages where the
community could be of more importance than the individual. This can also be seen in
soldiers in battle especially since military training involves being drilled to place
little value on the person (Lukes, 1973). Anomie is concerned with the degree of
regulation in society, that is, the extent to which there are clear and unambiguous norms.
When society lacks such regulation it is in a state of anomie which changes the way that
people fit into society. Durkheim saw this happening in places experiencing an economic
recession as the expectations which people had because of their place in society were no
longer attainable (Lukes, 1973). This was seen in the Great Depression as the suicide rate
among middle aged men rose with unemployment (Brett, 1993).
Durkheim's theories look as if they could apply to the rise in youth suicide in New
Zealand today. The user pays system and aggressive market policies introduced by our
governments over the last 10 years have encouraged egoism as society has valued
individualism and being able to stick it out on your own more and more over helping those
who are worse off. The social bonds are being destroyed.
The rapidity with which these changes came about have brought about a state of anomie in
our society, which was a relatively stable welfare state. How much is society alienating
our young people, leaving them feeling like they don't matter and without hope? It does
seem that using Durkheim's framework there could be strong social factors which have
increased the youth suicide rate over the past few years but there are many questions
which need to be asked.
Why is it that youth rates are climbing and not the suicide rate of the general
population? Why is it that for some, life becomes too difficult whereas others can grin
and bear it? What factors influence a particular individual to kill themselves and what,
apart from writing to our MP or Paul Holmes, can we do about it?
The factors influencing individuals are the issues that psychologists are interested in,
and two studies in Christchurch have helped to shine some light on what these factors are.
The Canterbury Suicide Project began in 1992 and is to run over a four year period. Over
that time they intend to collect data from more than 200 suicide cases in Christchurch by
interviewing family, friends, and health professionals to build up a picture of the
background circumstances leading up to these suicides (Beautrais, 1992).
In 1994 this project stated that their initial impressions have reiterated what has been
found by much overseas research. About 90% of those who die by suicide can be diagnosed
with a psychiatric disorder, with the most common being depression, alcohol or drug
dependence and conduct disorder or anti-social personality disorder. More often than not
they have two or more of these diagnoses. They have also found that a disproportionate
number of people came from a family social background that was abusive, chaotic or
dysfunctional in some way.
The other Christchurch study is the "Christchurch Health and Development Study"
which has been following the progress of 1265 children born in the city in 1977. Fergusson
and Lynskey (1995) have recently released a report on the prevalence of suicide attempts
and the circumstances involved in those situations using the information from this study.
This information is particularly useful as data was recorded throughout the individuals'
lives and not just after they had attempted suicide.
By the age of 16 years 3% of the sample reported having made a suicide attempt and the
same factors were found at the same frequency as in the "Canterbury Suicide
Projects" findings. Nearly 90% of those attempting suicide had at least one of the
psychiatric disorders mentioned earlier. Those with a psychiatric disorder were 16 times
more at risk of suicidal behaviour than those without such problems. 93% of those
attempting suicide had at least one problem of social adjustment compared with 37% of the
Those with problems of adjustment were 22 times more at risk than those without.
Adjustment problems included low self-esteem, leaving school early, juvenile offending and
police contact. Those with more problems were more at risk. Fergusson and Lynskey also
report that those who attempted suicide had childhoods which were characterised by
disadvantageous circumstances. These included poor economic circumstances, high rates of
parental substance abuse and offending behaviours, less responsive early maternal care
(they did not mention paternal care), lower levels of childhood experiences, more parental
change, family conflict, and more frequent changes of school and residence. Their studies
showed the presence of a strong relationship between the measure of childhood
circumstances and rates of attempted suicide.
Their conclusion was that there is a common pathway leading to adolescent suicide. This
pathway involves early unsatisfactory family and childhood circumstances which increases
an individual's vulnerability to problems of adjustment and psychiatric disorders in
adolescence and these in turn increase the risk of that individual attempting suicide.
This conclusion throws some light on how social factors and individual psychological
factors combine in influencing a youth to attempt suicide. Sociologists and psychologists
have often been critical of each others' different approach to understanding suicide and
how to deal with it (Brett, 1993).
I believe it is important to understand all these factors for us to address the need
adequately. It seems that our family structures have been changing as our society has
changed and this has had a direct influence on the youth of today. In 1991 the former
Ministry of Youth Affairs senior advisory officer claimed our rising suicide rates were a
response to "New Zealand's male macho image,... unemployment, changing family
structures, breakdown in traditional systems and a general sense of fatalism about the
future" (Brett, 1993, p 91).
We need to be aware of the impact our society has on the family and the impact of the
family on the individual. There seems to be more and more evidence coming out that a
predisposition to psychiatric disorders is genetic, however, there still needs to be a
number of triggers that determine whether or not one will develop that illness. For
example, of two people with a predisposition to depression, one that grows up in
disadvantageous childhood circumstances may get depression and attempt suicide whereas the
other may not.
Although treating psychiatric disorders is important for those at risk now, Fergusson and
Lynskey (1995) go on to suggest that an important component of any effective suicide
prevention programme would be the development of family support programmes to address the
needs of high risk families and their offspring. Appropriate family intervention schemes
can significantly reduce subsequent adolescent adjustment problems. There is an increasing
amount of evidence which supports this (Garland & Ziglar, 1993).
There is no short term solution to the problem of youth suicide. In fact, if there is any
solution then it needs to be multi-faceted. It is not enough to say society must change
without working with the youth at risk now. It is not enough to have mental health
awareness campaigns if we do not strive to provide a better environment for the youth of
|References Beautrais, A., (1992). Research design and interim
report. Canterbury Suicide Project Bulletin, 1 (Feb), Christchurch School of Medicine.
Brett, C., (1993). Lost boys. North and South, June, 88-97. Canterbury Suicide Project
Bulletin, (1994). (4) Feb, Christchurch School of Medicine. Fergusson, D. and Lynskey, M.,
(1995). Childhood Circumstances, Adolescent Adjustment and Suicide Attempts in a New
Zealand Birth Cohort (unpublished). Garland, A. and Ziglar, E., (1993). Adolescent suicide
prevention: Current research and social policy implications. American Psychologist, 48
(2), 169-181. Giddens, A., (1971). Capitalism and Modern Social Theory. London: Cambridge
University Press. Lukes, S., (1973). Emile Durkheim. London: Penguin Books. Back to SOSAD