Today I’d like to address something dark and miserable: New Zealand’s horrific suicide rates, particularly among young men.
New Zealand is in the top 15 of the OECD for suicides per capita. In particular, we have horrific rates for males aged 20 to 24 and for both genders in their middle age. In the year from 2017 to 2018 we had nearly 700 suicides in New Zealand – a record high since beginning measurements.
When asked to comment on this, the ‘experts’ of New Zealand put this down to poverty, violence, colonialism, and stigma against mental health issues.
While all these may be contributing factors, as someone who was face to face with a lot of suicidal people for most of my career, I’ve seen a dark truth about New Zealand come through that I’d like to bring up, to help us address the problem of suicide in this country.
For me, it all began when the most popular guy in my high school committed suicide. It was right around the age of 18 or so. We had just left high school. For me, that was a mind-boggling experience. I didn’t know him particularly well but I had spent some time with him. What I knew him to be is the most loved person in our year – he was simply and undeniably the most popular kid in our school. Yet he was so depressed that he killed himself.
This raised a question: if he has all that so-called privilege, why did he do it?
Since that tragic experience, I’ve worked in the Department of Corrections for over 7 years and I’ve been a coach for about 6 years. I’ve worked with a lot of people who have depression and other mental illnesses, and I’ve worked with a lot of suicidal people – tragically, some of whom went on to do it. I’ve learned that there’s something else behind this mystery – there are other factors in New Zealand’s culture that I believe contribute greatly to the risk of suicide
#1 The pressure to be easygoing
This unwritten rule we have to present ourselves is uncaring and unaffected – to not rock the boat, to not have confrontations, not complain or create conflicts. To not be angry, to not be annoyed, to take pride in not caring about anything. That’s huge in New Zealand culture, and I haven’t seen that in many other countries I’ve travelled to (except for the United Kingdom).
There’s this idea that if you feel something, if you’re strongly affected by something, then you’re somehow a failure. So you grow up in New Zealand with this pressure to pretend that you’re cool with anything.
It’s a kind of emotional sarcasm that’s rife throughout New Zealand culture. This idea that anything emotional is a joke, that if anybody gets worked up or upset about anything then they’re a loser. They’ve failed and should be mocked.
This creates a suppression of emotion, which I believe is one of the true triggers to dark and twisted mental illnesses that lead to suicide. We all still feel everything, except we hide it behind a nonchalant smile… and the darkness grows.
#2 “Harden up, cunt”
One that I grew up with, particularly in West Auckland, was hearing “Harden up, cunt” multiple times per week. Particularly aimed at young men is this pressure to be macho and tough, or “staunch” as we used to call it.
Don’t cry. Always be aggressive. When you party, party hard; drink a lot, drug a lot, try to fuck as many girls as possible. Play rugby. Don’t be too smart in school. Punch someone in the face if you don’t like them. Know how to fix engines and build a deck. Only show affection when you’re drunk (and be as obnoxious as possible with it). Be a manly fucking man, and never show any femininity or weakness or softness whatsoever.
You’ll see this on any worksite in the trades where, ironically, there is a lot of depression. If you show that you’re affected by anything – that you’re are sad or upset or offended – everybody’s gonna give you heaps of shit about it. “Harden up – have a cup of concrete” – this idea that if you’re feeling anything (other than humour or aggression) you’ve somehow failed as a man.
Again, this means you have to be very fake and you have to repress a lot of emotion, while also forcing yourself to overindulge in aggressive emotions. If you’re wondering where depression comes from, look no further.
#3 “NZ is awesome”
An overarching problem we have in New Zealand is we keep telling ourselves how awesome New Zealand is. “Clean, green New Zealand.”
We pride ourselves in our easygoing nature, but statistically, this is faulty. Our nationalism is unjustified. We have embarrassing rates of suicide, domestic violence, drug addiction, and many other things that we sweep under the rug to ignore the fact that New Zealand is quite ill under the surface.
The government recently refused to agree to a zero-suicide policy. We never talk about emotional problems or suicide in school, or in the workplace. It’s this thing that we just kind of ignore as if it’s not happening, because we don’t want anything to taint our idea that New Zealand is the best country ever.
#4 alcohol and other drugs
One which I think is both a cause and a symptom of suicidality is our ridiculous levels of drug addiction, particularly when you understand that alcohol is a drug.
We are piss-heads and we’re proud of it (why?!). When we’re not on the piss, we’re smoking, snorting, huffing, popping and injecting. This is the behaviour of a society that does not know how to process emotion and trauma and pain.
I believe the main reason we have such a strangely endemic gang problem in New Zealand is our insatiable appetite for drugs (and our insistence on keeping them illegal). Organised Crime thrives on our inability to manage and process painful emotions.
The stack of pain
I believe that these forces combine with the ones that the experts recognise to create an extreme sense of psychological pressure. This pressure leads to devastating consequences.
One is that you become superficial and isolated because you’re unable to express emotion. You’re unable to connect well with people, so you end up becoming incredibly lonely, and you’ll find that loneliness and suicide go together like a hand in glove.
On top of this loneliness, of course, comes a lack of self-confidence. We’re too scared to express ourselves honestly, to live by our values and to have integrity. We’re trying so hard to try to fit in with this easygoing tall poppy syndrome bullshit. This breeds incredibly low self-worth people, all of whom are pretending to be confident.
So there you are: you’ve now got low self-confidence and depression, and you’re isolated because you can’t express emotion and connect with anyone… and then you feel like killing yourself. Who are you going to talk to about it?
And that’s why you follow through.
New Zealand men need to become more honest. We need to stop caring what all those hypocrites at the workplace think, and start showing what we really think and really feel, and become role models for those who are not yet courageous enough to do it.
That’s one of the reasons that we created BROJO – it’s a community of men who can be real with each other. There, you can show your light and your dark side, and we need much more of this in New Zealand if we hope to bring these suicide rates down. Men need to be challenged on the cowardly fake way that they present themselves.
If you believe you’re experiencing depression or anxiety, go and see your GP. They’ll start the process started. If you can’t talk to your family and friends about it, so be it – go see the professionals. They will talk to you about it and introduce you to a system that can help you with it. Medication does work. Therapy can help. Support groups and communities will transform your life.
If you think you’re depressed, then you probably are! So take it seriously because that’s the stepping stone towards suicide.
If you’ve already decided on suicide, what’s one more day? Reach out to someone because maybe this doesn’t have to go through – maybe there’s an option where there is a brighter future but you just can’t see it right now. So call someone who’s not down in the pit with you, who might be able to talk you through some strategies to cope with these feelings.
Thank you for paying attention to this you found it helpful please share it around and together we can make an impact, possibly, on this inexplicable yet quite understandable wave of self-loathing that leads to suicide in New Zealand.
Media summary of suicide in NZ: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/106532292/new-zealand-suicide-rate-highest-since-records-began