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Through the dark times together

In 2010, then Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean began releasing provisional suicide statistics. His argument was straightforward: we’re not doing enough to prevent suicide, and more information aids our efforts. This was a watershed moment for discussion of suicide in our country. The release of stats lifted the lid on conversations about those who take their own lives and now sits squarely in the annual news cycle.

October 2017’s release revealed the highest absolute figures since we began keeping records (although the rate—suicides per 100,000—is a little less than 2010/11 due to population growth). As a rule, the total number of suicides per year sits somewhere in the 500s, near double the road toll.

But suicide statistics don’t tell the whole story. Take the most recent stats on suicidal ideation among high schoolers, released by Auckland University in 2012 (yes, an update is long overdue), which shows one-in-five females and one-in-10 males seriously thought about suicide in the previous 12 months. Cast those percentages across our school population and that’s over 75,000 students who’ve been in such a dark place that they’ve wanted out.

Someone taking their own life is a tragedy. The number who consider it is massively sobering. But add to this the untold story of so many ‘unsuccessful attempts’—a phrase that belies the deep grief of friends and family, as well as the person who attempted suicide. As a youth worker, as awful as it is to hear a young person has taken their life, it’s just as heartbreaking to hear someone tried.

It is this more comprehensive frustration that four years ago sparked our organisation Zeal to innovate in how we support youth mental health. The result was a project called ‘Live For Tomorrow’ (www.zeal.nz/livefortomorrow)—an affirmation that whatever you’re going through today, it’s not the end of the story.

We chose the ellipsis as our brandmark —those three dots at an end of a sentence that communicate, in the words of one of our youth founders, ‘to be continued ...’ Our approach is to go to where young people spend the majority of their time—online and in schools—with messages of hope and positive change.

Everyone has mental health, just like we all have physical health, so we need to provide support across the whole spectrum, not just at the acute end. Recently, we developed a world-first intervention that offers live, interpersonal support to young people disclosing crisis on social media. We carry the burden of action, as opposed to waiting for young people to come to us.

One of our Live For Tomorrow posters, a pair of boxing gloves decorated in flowers, reads, ‘Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle’. Life is tough no matter who you are. And maybe that can help each of us be a little more vulnerable, a little less prone to facades and hard fronts.

Maybe it can also encourage us to lead with compassion in our relationships. On retiring in 2015, Judge MacLean spoke of one common theme in the suicides he’d investigated: a lack of being able to talk and be listened to. In doing so he unearthed a simple but often overlooked truth. There’s only one way to get through dark times: together.


by Elliot Taylor (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 20 May 2017, pp3
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.