I’ve been following the NZ herald series on suicide, not closely, working as a school counsellor gives me some insight to the phenomenon but I am always cautious about my own understanding, even with close to 15yrs experience. But the Herald series is a bit like throwing out a series of dots from which people can join to form a picture. Here is where I’m a little unsure just which dots are standing out, how they are being joined and what picture/s are emerging. It’s tragic, compelling, emotive and unfortunately political. The dots could be seen as key ideas, some backed by research, others personal experiences, experts like (Sir) Peter Gluckman are mixed in with Mike King. Much like a join the dots activity I did as a kid, if there are just a few dots they have to be joined carefully and in the correct order to get the picture, more dots gives more detail. Sometimes you didn’t need to see the numbers to join them correctly – but at other times connecting the 2 with 8 really threw things off and you got a duck instead of a bunny. And this is where I think some of the discussion on suicide has gone – into duckbunny land.
I’ve read Gluckman’s report, it’s worth reading but how many people will actually bother to pick up his dots? He suggests the key work needs to be done much earlier than secondary schools, but also that adolescents is a vulnerable period regardless. There is a link between communities that have a low sense of worth, less hope for a future. I am saddened at the risk for Maori and other communities such as LGBTQI+ youth, this is where I think schools continue to ignore the dots and avoid responsibility for creating safe, genuinely inclusive (including bi-cultural values) environments. When principals deny queer young people safe places to meet (i.e. not allowing students to form gay-straight alliances), be valued members of the community– they increase risk. When schools fail to provide trained, qualified counsellors because pastoral care is not seen as valued – risk increases.
You see a couple of dots that people keep ignoring or leaving off the page, is the spike in suicide with the rolling out of ‘Tomorrows Schools’ when secondary schools could opt to not have counsellors in favour of the rather vague idea of ‘providing adequate guidance’ – and there are so many weird, vague interpretations of this. Key also is the gradual rising of the school leaving age, with university entrance now requiring completing level 3 (7th form for old school people). So if a young person is able to consent to their own medical treatment at 16, surely we should be enabling them to access mental health support as well, and schools that do not employ trained counsellors deny young people a potential lifeline.
Because every day, I talk to young people who have lost hope, who feel adults they have turned to have freaked out, got angry, dismissed, not believed them or blamed them for what is going on. They have thought about suicide, might be ready to die, but they somehow managed to get to my office. They aren’t making this shit up, they are survivors of bullying, sexual abuse, rape, family violence, they are from all cultures, they are LGBTQI+ and they had a free resource available, a fence at the top of the cliff – a trained, qualified, professionally affiliated counsellor.
It’s election year though, so I say this to all politicians – Stop ignoring these dots because they do not fit your convenient picture. Make a commitment to resourcing schools and agencies at the coal face of this work. Stop political point scoring around education, especially with vulnerable populations. No more dots are needed, just draw the lines FFS.