We need to talk about suicide

Suicide seems to be the last taboo. Journalists are still not allowed to report honestly about it. When someone kills themselves weasel words have to be used to avoid using the taboo word.

There are two schools of thought about suicide. One school of thought that seems to be prevalent in New Zealand society, is that to talk about suicide or report accurately on suicide can cause people to kill themselves. This school of thought sees open discussion of suicide as a risky move and one that can do more harm than good. I suspect that this may be what motivated a principal to prevent a student from presenting a speech about suicide here in New Zealand.

An Oamaru teenager is “gutted” after being told she was not allowed to present a speech on suicide at school.

When an English assignment called for students to present a speech to their class, Waitaki Girls’ High School student Shania Kohinga, 15, decided she wanted to highlight a very personal issue and talk about suicide.

She wanted to focus on a family member who took their own life, and the effect that had on family and friends.

That was deemed to be inappropriate by the school, and Shania was told she needed to pick another topic.

Her older sister and caregiver, Cherie Kohinga, said Shania was “really gutted” that she could not talk about the issue in her speech.

“She was basically stopped then and there and told she couldn’t because it’s a sensitive topic for some girls.

“Shania was basically just really bummed because she thought it was going to be a time for her to speak out about her own experience and she felt very shut down.”

Waitaki Girls’ High School principal Tracy Walker said she met with Cherie on Friday to discuss the issue.

It was important for Shania to be able to discuss the topic, but there were more appropriate ways to do that, Walker said.

One option was to read her speech to the school’s guidance counsellor, she said.

“We’re not trying to stop her from expressing herself, and we do understand that youth want to talk about these things.

“It’s just got to be the appropriate venue.”

Cherie said Shania wanted to speak out for those who wouldn’t speak out for themselves.

“The school basically shut the whole thing down because they have services in the school for stuff like suicide and depression, but the fact of the matter is, no-one wants to go and speak to some random older person about their issues like that.

“They want real stories from young people. They want to know how other young people overcame this sort of stuff.”

It was important to get messages like Shania’s out there, not only because would it help her, but because it could also help other young people in a similar situation, she said.

“The school thought it’d trigger someone who’s never thought about suicide before to actually start thinking about it.

“Everyone has heard of suicide, but either way it was just really insensitive and I hope they let people speak of it in the future. Not only for themselves but for the safety of the other students who don’t realise there are other people going through it who could also help them.”

University of Otago senior research fellow Dr Shyamala Nada-Raja said the pros and cons of delivering a speech about suicide to young people needed to be “carefully considered”.

While talking about youth mental health issues was important, the details of the speech could have unforseen consequences, she said.

The school also had a “moral and ethical” duty of care for its students, and had to take steps to ensure their wellbeing, she said.


People in crisis or concerned about someone who may be in crisis can call these confidential helplines:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Samaritans: 0800 726 666

Depression: 0800 111 757

– Stuff

The second school of thought is that we need to talk openly about suicide and that the very people who are affected the most by suicide, should be allowed to talk about their personal experiences. A teenager is a lot more likely to be influenced by another teenager than by a counsellor.  When I was in high school I was put off drink driving by a teenager who spoke to our class about an accident he was involved in, where he described the injuries his girlfriend sustained.

Hearing from someone who’d lost a loved one to suicide and the consequences for her and her family would be an effective way to get an anti-suicide message out there. Rather than making a teenager think about killing themselves I feel that it is more likely to make them think twice and get help. More importantly it might help others to catch the tell-tale signs and get help for a loved one before they commit suicide.

Suicide is a silent epidemic that we need to face head on. We need to talk about it and we need to talk about it with the people most likely to be affected by it. Teenagers need to know that it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. They need to know where to go for help. They need to know that they are not alone in feeling like this. They need to be aware of the consequences for the loved ones left behind. More importantly they will benefit from hearing all this from someone who has been there; someone who has experienced suicidal thoughts and feelings and survived.

I have had suicidal thoughts and feelings. I am not ashamed to say that because I firmly believe that by being honest about suicide and dragging it out of the shadows we will help rather than harm. We all have a natural inbuilt flight or fight response to trouble. Suicide is the ultimate flight response. We need to acknowledge this and talk openly about how we can find a way to channel that desire to flee trouble in a way that does not remove us from the planet.


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  • jaundiced

    Those impacted by the suicide of someone close are always left wondering, ‘why didn’t we know, why didn’t they tell us how they were feeling…’
    It needs to be something we talk about

  • Seriously?

    I wonder if there is any research about whether it is better to have an open discussion or not. I suspect our silent treatment is an historical hangover without sound scientific basis. But while guts says it is better to talk about it honestly, if most of the experts say otherwise I’ll go with their advice.

    As a teenager I suffered depression and had suicidal thoughts (planning it out etc but never taking action). A mix of mediation and growing up now makes that time seem like it happened to a different person – almost unbelievable really.

    • WeaselKiss

      I know exactly what you are saying.
      In 1974, as an outwardly well adjusted farmers son, I got seriously down in the dumps about things, heavens knows why.
      One night I went over to the shed and got hold of the box that held a couple of the big nearly foot long plastic tubes of cyanide the old man used for possums.
      I deliberately tore the flap off a nearby cardboard box and I squeezed a big dollop of paste onto this scrap of cardboard and I held it up to my face – to this day I can still see it clearly the moonlight coming in through the window……
      But I couldn’t do it.
      And the reason? I had just found out I only passed one subject for school C! And if I’m to be honest I never really took high school all that seriously anyway. Bizarre.
      As you say ‘it’s almost unbelievable really’.

      • Seriously?

        Looking back I think it would have made a real difference for me if Dad had sat me down and said something like the speech I’m starting to rehearse for my kids…

        Son, sometimes life is hard, and when you’re young it can seem impossibly hard. Feeling that way sometimes is quite normal, I felt that way sometimes at your age. But it’s not impossible. Struggles are overcome. Worries are resolved, even if new ones come along. Worry about the things you can change, not those you cannot, and know that in 10 years time you’ll look back on the things you worry about now and smile. Talking things over can help. So, wanna tell me what makes you worry?

  • I made this video to add to the conversation that we must have if we are to understand the despair and devastation that a suicide bequeaths to those left behind.
    ‘There is no Book.’ 17 mins


    • Usaywot

      Well done, Keith. This is really good.

    • KiwiLliz

      Wonderful job Keith, very honest video and full of hope.

  • Andrewj

    My children went to high school in California. There was a suicide in the class, they had councillors talk to the children and also to the class, all out in the open, the boy’s parents involved the works. My children worked through it well and happy to talk about it. The several lockdowns due to nutters with guns they found harder.

  • Larry

    Perhaps it could be published on this site?

  • Usaywot

    As someone who has lost a child to suicide I can’t stress enough the importance of bringing this out in the open. Suicide is completely devastating for those left behind and before this happened to us we had little knowledge about the causes, reasons, and consequences due to this secrecy. We have since read, studied, researched and made every effort to understand and can now say we do understand what happened and why. It was amazing how many people thought it was a shameful thing that had happened to us and it was extremely painful that nobody wanted to talk about our beloved child. We never felt it was shameful, have talked openly about it and had only deep sympathy for our child and an overwhelming sorrow which will never leave us. We noted that friends who had lost children to cancer or car accidents had way more support and understanding from others than we did yet we know it was an illness like any other that killed our child.

  • JohnO

    3 years ago Kings school in Auckland had a suicide by a pupil. It was devastating to those who knew him well. Then some months later that was followed by another suicide. Again devastating for those who knew the young person. This was closely followed by one failed suicide attempt (student jumped from 5th floor window but landed on cloth verandah and survived). Shortly after that there was a third suicide with another student (with a well known parent). My point is those who are vulnerable to the “stinkin thinkin” that leads to suicide are highly susceptible to the inevitable “suggestion to take your own life” that “discussion” of suicide generates. This is one area where silence is better than mouthing off about it. No matter how beneficial it may be to the one who is doing the talking some of the listeners are receiving the subconcious suggestion to commit suicide.

  • Bruce S

    Isn’t it amazing that more people die from suicide than road crashes in NZ and paradoxically, we hear more about reducing the road toll but never about suicide prevention?

    Could it be that suicide statistics aren’t compelling enough to engender affirmative action? You want to talk about suicide in NZ then you need to deal with the facts and they are blatantly obvious; it’s Maori and males killing themselves at the highest rates. Seems no one in NZ is brave enough to ask WHY? Without the why how can we even begin to talk meaningfully about this tragedy? And that conversation needs to be had before we can even begin to know what specific programs should be implemented to address this shameful epidemic.

  • david W

    I got “let go” from a tertiary teaching contract because I brought mental health and suicide into the teaching material. It was relevant to the material, and was used as examples to illustrate points. But apparently it was not appropriate to discuss these things. Was very surprised given how epidemic both depressing and suicide is.