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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