What Can I Do?

What Can I Do?

John Hebenton

“ What can I do to stop young people
attempting suicide?

This material by John Hebenton is based on the results of the Canterbury Suicide Prevention Project, and the findings reported at the Institute of Child Protection Studies Suicide Prevention Workshop in February 1998.Suicide has many causes. Recent research suggests that the major causes of youth suicide can be described under four headings:

Social and educational disadvantage;
Family adversity, dysfunction and disadvantage;
Significant mental health problems in adolescence;
Adverse and stressful life events;


Family and mental health issues prove to be most significant. Usually youth suicide is not caused by any one factor, but by an accumulation of the various factors through childhood and adolescence. As such, there are no easy answers and cure alls. It is clear that prevention strategies need to be designed to address the risk factors identified by research, from here in New Zealand and overseas. This may seem a common sense approach, but there is a fair amount of material around which is not based on research material, and which may in fact increase the risk.

For the rate of suicide among 15 to 24 year olds, particularly males, to come down, there needs to be changes in society, including:

Increased awareness of the causes of suicide
The integration of suicide prevention with broader programmes aimed at addressing youth mental health and adjustment problems
Increased public investment in youth mental health
Increased public investment in family support services
An informed and responsible media
Increased awareness that some school based programmes on suicide are potentially harmful

Strategies to bring about these change include:

Promotion of well being, of individuals, families and communities
Early identification and help for those at risk
Support and treatment for those who are suicidal, or who attempt suicide
Support for the family, peers and community after a suicide attempt
Information and research to inform the development of appropriate strategies.

Well all this is very well, but what can I, someone involved in youth ministry do about all of this. The answer is several things.

1. Firstly keep the issue in perspective.Of 1000 secondary school pupils, 750 will never even think of committing suicide. Of the 250 that will, only 50 might actually attempt, most with no substantial injury, and only one requiring hospitalisation. Only 1 every 10 years will complete their suicide attempt.

When suicide is made a big issue, it is normalised! That is, people think that it is an O.K thing to do. We need to be clear, it is not O.K. and it is rare!

A key part of not promoting suicide as an option for young people is NOT running programmes or discussion specifically on suicide with young people. This has been found in some cases to stimulate suicidal behaviour, rather than reduce them.

2. Work on the big picture.

We also have a role to help bring about the kind of changes listed above, through working with health groups seeking changes in health and social welfare priorities. It also means monitoring how the media approach the issue, and complaining when it is sensationalised.

3. Get involved personally.

Our role as youth leaders and others involved in youth ministry is mainly one of prevention and support. We also have responsibilities to intervene and get help when we see young people at risk, and to support the young person, their friends and family after an attempt. But we are not experts. Treatment is the responsibility of others. So let’s explore these roles.

Build the houseWithin Māori Health discussions, the four aspects of the health of an individual are described asTe Whare Tapa Whaa, the four walls of the house. Like the house, people need all four walls to be healthy and strong. Rather than being concerned with suicide prevention as such, we need to be trying to help young people be healthy and whole. These four walls help us understand how we might go about this. The four walls include:

Te Taha Wairua, or spirituality. Right up our alley really. Especially emphasising Life as given by God through Jesus.

Te Taha Whanau, or family, including extended and church family. This involves working to strengthen families. It also involves building the links between young people and other adults in the church community so that they have adults other than their parents that they trust and talk to. This builds both a sense of belonging to the Christian community, and allows problems to be talked through and kept in perspective.

Te Taha Hinengaro, or mental health and wellbeing. Mental Health issues are a major risk factor for suicide, yet are often overlooked. In particular depression in young people is confused with their normal mood swings and behaviour. We have a role to let both the young people we work with, and adults within our congregations to the issues of adolescent mental health, and to be aware of warning signs of depression and drug and alcohol abuse, and work with young people to get help.

The Mental Health Foundation has prepared very useful material and a workshop to help people become more aware of youth depression.

Te Taha Tinana, or physical wellbeing. The bottom line here is obviously staying alive. Anna and Phil cover issues of intervention on their page. Another approach we can develop with young people is a sense of responsibility for healthy life patterns that keep the mind in good shape, and the body intact.

John & Bonnie Hebenton
Regional Youth Ministry, Bay of Plenty & Waikato,
Aotearoa New Zealand