Pacific youth at risk to silent killer

Cultural-based solutions, the answer?

An alarming rise in suicides and the first reported suicide of a youth under nine years of age has rallied New Zealand’s Pacific community into taking ownership of a social issue that has left many grieving families searching for answers.

Statistics released last August reported 547 suicides nationwide over the previous 12 months from 2011-2012. Of that number, 31 were Pacific islanders, nine more than 2010/2011. In Auckland alone, 18 Pacific people took their own lives in 2011, including two persons under the age of 13.

The number of youths taking their own lives had surged by more than 40 percent. Most were males. What was concerning was that the stats found young Pacific people were twice as likely to have depression, mental disorders, anxiety issues, or to make suicide attempts as the rest of the population.

The self-harm methods used by suicide victims ranged from drug overdose to jumping off bridges. Hanging was the most common form (61%). The reasons are far more complex, however.

Suicide has been described as a “silent killer” because it is rarely reported. The New Zealand media observe strict ethical codes around self-harm incidents because local authorities believe the publicising of suicide incidents only aggravates what is already a sensitive issue.

There is also a fear that publicity glamourises suicide and may lead to copycat incidents. The system’s failure to bring down suicide incidents has prompted calls for a more open approach.

New Zealand’s Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean supports a move to provide suicide statistics in a timely manner, rather than waiting a couple of years for confirmed data.

“The strategy of not talking about it obviously hasn’t worked...it needs to be more discussed,’’ says David Lui, a Pacific Islands health and social issues consultant.

Traditionally in Pacific cultures, suicide is a taboo topic due to social, religious and cultural reasons. It is usually discussed in secrecy. But it has always been a big issue.

Globally, more than one million people take their own lives every year and New Zealand’s suicide rate of 11 in every 100,000 is the highest in the English-speaking world. Suicide rates in the region peaked in the 1990s when the South Pacific led the world in youth suicide. New Zealand had the world’s highest suicide rate with 18.7% of 15-19-year olds in that decade.

Pacific people born in New Zealand appear to be most at risk, especially youth struggling to deal with family pressures and cultural obligations which often were in conflict with their westernised upbringing. Adding to the cocktail is a myriad of social ills such as poverty, health problems and lack of education where the Pacific demographic features highest.

Tongan-born psychiatrist Dr Siale Foliaki places economic factors at the root of the cause. “When a migrant group doesn’t get a strong economic foothold in their adopted country, within two generations you will see negative social and health outcomes,” he says.

He claims there were forces at work undermining traditional cultural values and a number of families were under enormous stress because of this. That stress often manifested itself in suicide.

Dr Foliaki sees early intervention as the best solution to reverse the suicide trend. “We have to pick them up early. The early childhood education sector is the best place to intervene. It is cheaper and ensures better outcomes for youth by the time they reach their teens.”

Dr Foliaki says the two cardinal signs parents need to look out for in their young children are consistent aggression and inattention. This was often caused by parents’ lack of communication or spending time with their children. Gone unchecked, these influences often led to dire consequences.

Youth were most at risk when they felt unsupported, pressured and isolated. They then became vulnerable to a life of crime, violence, alcohol, drugs and even bullying. Technological advances in social media platforms (i.e – facebook, twitter) and texting had amplified these social influences.

Auckland academic, Dr Jemaima Tiatia, who has researched the subject in depth and spoken to many Pacific youths who had attempted suicide, believes most incidents of suicide among Pacific youth came down to family pressure and peer relationship breakdowns.

Attempting suicide was their reaction to this. Whether it was a boy taking his life after being dumped by his girlfriend, or a girl who could no longer handle the pressure of supporting her family financially, suicide or an attempted suicide often resulted from an angry moment that had built up.

Many did not know how to seek help or lacked the communication skills or maturity to resolve their predicaments. In Pacific cultures, young people were brought up to respect elders and not to talk unless spoken to. This was another reason why Pacific youth felt voiceless.

Prime Minister John Key admits the current suicide statistics are damning and the Government needed to do better.

“I worry a lot about the fact it disproportionately affects Maori and Pacific boys. We can see where the issue is prevalent—it’s been a longstanding problem,” he says. But he conceded the issue was a complex one and the Government didn’t have all the answers.

“When a young person takes their life, as a country you mourn that, because as adults we know that there’s always a solution to problems. Unfortunately that young person gets themselves into a situation where they don’t believe there’s a solution to a problem.”

The New Zealand Government has fronted up with NZ$62 million from last year’s budget to fund support services and mental health programmes.

But critics say it is a waste of money pouring resources into “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” services without addressing the core problems. The focus should be on suicide prevention and early intervention, they say.

With suicide linked closely with social inequities such as poverty, unemployment and lack of education, the enduring impact of the global economic downturn will continue to bring more distress to Pacific communities.

As the country’s youthful Pacific population nears 300,000 (a third of which live in Auckland), Pacific unemployment continues to rise, particularly among Pacific youth who have left school with little or no qualifications.

Since the National Party was elected into government in 2008, Pacific unemployment has doubled from 7.3 percent to 15.6 percent this year, compared to the national unemployment figure of 7.3 percent.

Pacific people are the highest represented ethnic group. The 2011/2012 stats showed that 28 percent of suicide victims were unemployed.

Mangere’s Labour MP, Su’a William Sio believes the lack of jobs for young Pacific people drives them to hopelessness, a major cause of suicide.

“Young people need to believe they have a future, but in South Auckland it’s desperately hard for many of our young people to feel that way,” he says.

The lack of jobs is a major reason for more than 1,000 New Zealanders leaving the country for Australia every week. But Australia’s tight immigration laws make it harder for many of the Pacific’s unskilled work force to follow this exodus.

“This government is failing the Pasifika population by inflicting significant financial misery on individuals and families through a failure to create anywhere near enough jobs,” said the NZ First MP, Asenati Lole-Taylor.

Health professionals and community leaders are looking beyond legislation and economic reform to find answers by delving deeper into the cultural links behind suicide.


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