The latest coroner statistics show the number of New Zealand teenagers committing suicide has increased for the fourth
year in a row.
The Children’s commissioner is calling for compulsory anti bullying programs in every New Zealand school and he’s right
and here’s why.
New Zealand has the highest global rate of suicide for 15 – 19 year olds and ranks number two in the world for bullying
in schools and number three in the world for cyberbullying.
Based on these statistics New Zealand is the least safe place in the world to bring up children.
As a scientist I wanted to understand the key drivers for New Zealand’s high youth suicide rates and identify strategies
that may help to reduce our horrendous teen suicide rates. What we know from International Research is that there are a
number of factors which may cause teen suicide. These include race/ ethnicity, institutional racism, sexual orientation
and gender identity, neurological ,peer media influence, molecular and genetic factors, poor nutrition ,substance abuse
and bullying and abuse.
This is part One of a Four part opinion piece to identify the leading causes of our high teen suicide rates and provide
insights into possible strategies to reduce preventable suicide’s in New Zealand.
PART ONE BULLYING
A Government funded review of the main causes of suicide in New Zealand concluded, “The dramatic variation in trends in of age-specific suicide rates over time in New Zealand ,and between countries raises the
possibility of social factors as important drivers of suicide rates in New Zealand.”
Putting this in plain English something in the way our culture and society has developed is causing our kids to kill
themselves in ever increasing numbers compared with the rest of the world.
In 2017, Professor Peter Gluckman, the then Government Chief Science Officer published a Youth Suicide Discussion
Prof Gluckman summarised the key drivers impinging on suicide risks such as socio-demographic factors, family discord,
low self-esteem ,alcohol and drug abuse, etc.
All of these factors plus the ongoing effects of colonisation are scientifically proven to contribute to youth suicide
but these key drivers exist in other countries and societies which have far less youth suicides.
For example, unemployment causes poverty, social inequity and can lead to depression but Greece which has a 20 %
unemployment rate has a teen suicide rate nearly thirteen times less than New Zealand. We also know that broken
marriages can contribute to teen suicides but Australia’s divorce rate is almost identical to New Zealand and Australia
has an indigenous population wracked with drug and alcohol abuse but has about half the teen suicides prevalent in New
Zealand. Also New Zealand’s teen suicide rate has steadily increased in line with our GDP growth. We are getting richer
and our teens suicide deaths increasing. Barbados has a ten percent unemployment rate and a whopping 47 % divorce rate
yet its teen suicide rate is over fifteen times less than New Zealand.
Clearly, there are other overarching social and cultural drivers contributing to New Zealand’s unprecedently high youth
I have been researching the commonalities between the four countries which exhibit the highest rate of teen suicide
rates in the world, New Zealand, Iceland, Latvia and Estonia and trying to understand why suicide rates in these
countries are so much higher than the rest of the world.
Well for a start they are all relatively small countries with populations ranging from 0.3 to 4.8 Million and are
predominantly monocultural societies with low population densities.
New Zealand, Latvia and Estonia have very high rates of bullying in schools but Iceland reports only moderate bullying.
Iceland is one of the happiest countries in the world judged by Icelandic peoples surveys of happiness but it also has
the world’s highest use of antidepressant drug consumption in the world, at almost twice the OECD average. So my guess
is that bullying in schools in Iceland may be underreported or that the countries Nationwide Anti Bullying campaign is
starting to show positive results.
All of these countries operate as predominantly monocultural “collective societies” or small villages, where everyone
knows their place and there is a culture of collective conformity.
For example New Zealand’s cultural evolution is based on predominantly European based collective society where hard
working farmers banded together and communities cherished the idea of fraternity, humility and labour above
individualistic per suite or recognition. Suchi Mouly a Professor of Management at the University of Auckland claims
Kiwis have difficulties in accepting diversity because the country has been homogenous for so long, and because New
Zealand is a relatively small country, it’s not used to people with different talents.
On arrival in New Zealand our forefathers ran roughshod over the indigenous Maori population and built an exclusive
collective society based on their European heritage. We were bullies from day one and today we continue to apply our
collective society values by accepting cultural and institutional racism in our education and healthcare systems.
The best way to think about small collective societies is a “Gloriavale” mentality where individuality and
self-expression is punished.
A large number of International trials have highlighted (peer victimisation) or bullying to be a major precursor to teen
An International survey published in 2017 by The program for International Student Assessment reported that New Zealand
has the second highest rate of school bullying out of the 51 countries surveyed. A further TIMSS report confirmed that
New Zealand has not been reducing bullying in primary Schools since 1994.In the first New Zealand study of its kind, a
Victoria University study survey of teachers and senior staff from primary intermediate and secondary schools found that
94 % indicated that bullying occurred in their school. In contrast, a survey of bullying in primary school children in
Greece indicated a bullying rate of fifteen percent.
Bullying can take many forms, racism,social exclusion, verbal ,sexual and physical abuse, coercion by peers and gender
Bullying is prevalent in all aspects of New Zealand society from schools to the workplace and social media .
It is so prevalent that it has become accepted as a cultural norm.
New Zealand children who are perceived as different in any way (Tall Poppies) whose physical appearance, performance or
not conforming to gender race or nationality or cultural norms such as the correct degree of humbleness are singled out
and bullied, sometime with fatal results.
I have presented to thousands of New Zealand Schoolchildren over the past twenty years encouraging them to dream big but
research shows that many of our rising stars hide their talent for fear of being singled out and bullied as a tall
New Zealand is a young country and much of our embedded bullying culture is cemented in our historical highly refined
European based collective society .
But with changes in our immigration patterns and our international connectivity we are experiencing growing pains as we
struggle to make the transition from a largely monocultural society to a multicultural society and transform from a
bullying collective society to an individualistic society where individuals can be tall poppies and stand out from the
crowd and where multiculturalism and racial diversity are accepted welcomed and cherished.
We need to make fundamental cultural changes to our society and open our hearts to diversity and say sorry to our
indigenous population. We need to celebrate individuality and say yes to success and encourage our kids try things with
no fear of failure. All this will take time but what we can do right now is come up with a strategy to address bullying
in schools which is a major precursor of teen suicides. The Government has promised to apply more funds towards mental
health services but to date I have seen no nationwide preventative planning strategies to reduce bullying in schools.
To solve how to stop bullying in schools we need to look at what has worked overseas.
The University of Turke, Finland has developed a successful and well proven school antibullying program with Funding
from the Ministry of Education and culture. The KiVa antibullying program has been proven to be effective in large
randomised controlled trial and is used in thirteen countries internationally including The United Kingdom, Iceland,
Chile, Belgium. Italy and is available in New Zealand.
Bullying is a major contributor to teen suicide rates in New Zealand and the government should implement a preventative
nationwide school antibullying program initiative as a matter of urgent priority.
Providing improved counselling to bullying victims is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Most bullying victims
never ask for help and sadly a large percentage of those receiving mental health treatment progress to suicide.
We ned to address the root cause of the problem, not the outcome.
The irony of our society is that as individuals New Zealanders are the most moral and caring nation on the planet but
our collective culture needs a lot of work.
Let’s start a Nationwide “it’s cool to be kind” anti-bullying program and make New Zealand the best and safest place in
the world to bring up children.
Sir Ray Avery
Scientist and father of Amelia and Anastasia