What's behind New Zealand's shocking youth suicide rate?

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TeenagerImage source, Getty Images

Think of New Zealand and what likely comes to mind is beautiful nature - fjords, mountains and magnificent landscapes, vast, empty and endless.

But for years already, the country has been struggling with another form of isolation - depression and suicide.

A new report by Unicef contains a shocking statistic - New Zealand has by far the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world.

A shock but no surprise - it's not the first time the country tops that table.

The Unicef report found New Zealand's youth suicide rate - teenagers between 15 and 19 - to be the highest of a long list of 41 OECD and EU countries.

The rate of 15.6 suicides per 100,000 people is twice as high as the US rate and almost five times that of Britain.

Why New Zealand?

There's a combination of reasons, and it's important not to only focus on one statistic, warns Dr Prudence Stone of Unicef New Zealand.

The high suicide rate ties in with other data, showing for instance child poverty, high rates of teenage pregnancies or families where neither of the parents have work.

New Zealand also has "one of the world's worst records for bullying in school", says Shaun Robinson of the Mental Health Foundations New Zealand.

He explains there is a "toxic mix" of very high rates of family violence, child abuse and child poverty that need to be addressed to tackle the problem.

Image source, AFP
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Many New Zealanders live in remote rural communities

New Zealand's own statistics also reveal that suicide rates are highest for young Maori and Pacific Islander men.

"This shows us there are also issues around cultural identity and the impact of colonisation," he says.

According to the most recent data of 2014, the suicide rate among Maori men across all age groups is around 1.4 times that of the non-Maori.

"It is alarming to see - and perhaps it is an indicator of the level of institutional and cultural racism in our society," says Dr Stone.

"There is no research for us to say that conclusively but it certainly suggests as much."

Image source, Getty Images
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Could the country's tough rugby culture be adding to pressure on teenage boys?

Beyond the bleak numbers there's another possibility that some cite as a possible cause for the troubling situation.

Health and support services across all Western countries have for years been fighting the stigma attached to depression perceived as weakness.

And this might in fact be more of a problem in New Zealand than in other countries.

"There is a tradition of the hardened-up mate culture within New Zealand," says Dr Stone. "It puts pressure on men to be of a particular mould, pressure on boys to harden up to become these tough beer-drinking hard men. "

She says there's been a slight change in recent years, with musicians and film makers emerging as role models for a different kind of New Zealand male - people that are "not your typical All Black big tough type" but show there can be a playful approach to masculinity.

Image source, Youthline
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Phone helplines can often offer life-saving support

"A lot of the Western world does really take an attitude: 'I'm just gonna grin and bear it,'" agrees Briana Hill, spokeswoman for Youthline, a phone helpline specifically aimed at young people.

"But I think there definitely is an added stoicism in the New Zealand psyche around 'I'm just gonna work through this myself' which you might not experience as much in other countries."

It's not that there's no support system to address the issue but the problem is that it's completely over-stretched.

Demand for services has shot up by 70% over the past decade, explains Mr Robinson, while the number of suicide-related callouts by police have gone up by 30% in the past four years alone.

It is a problem that Briana Hill of Youthline is only too familiar with. There are too many calls that they are simply not able to take, she says, because they don't have the capacity.

Image source, Youthline
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Youthline's counsellors are a mix of professionals and volunteers

The unanimous sense among the expert community is that there needs to be more funding to help the services that address the problem.

But equally important is a more general focus to create awareness of the problem and to prioritise it.

"The country is not doing a good job of supporting its young people to be able to manage the pressure, the stresses, the emotional and mental challenges that they are facing," says Shaun Robinson.

The persistence of the problem, though, over the years has already pushed it higher up the agenda of policy makers.

It has, for instance, become a topic in political debates ahead of the country's general election in September this year.

In April, the government published a draft for a national suicide prevention strategy which currently is up for public consultation.

While there is a lot of debate around the draft, even those who say it falls short agree that it's an important step towards shifting the country's sky-high suicide rates more into the public focus.

If you are feeling emotionally distressed and would like details of organisations in the UK which offer advice and support, go online to bbc.co.uk/actionline. In New Zealand, you can find similar information at Youthline and Lifeline.