Families and friends of those who die often find it difficult to understand why an individual ended his or her life. Coroners’ inquests and suicide notes suggest that the motives for suicide before 1970 were often different from those for more recent suicides of younger people.
Perhaps the longest suicide note in New Zealand history was written by William Robertson, a Canadian immigrant who was a strong advocate for including community development projects in the state housing scheme at Naenae, in Hutt Valley. When he believed his vision was not being supported, he spent much of 1950 writing ‘A final statement’ of 164 pages before throwing himself under a train near Melling.
The classic explanation for suicide is the pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim’s argument in 1893 that it is a symptom of anomie – an individual’s inadequate social integration or self-regulation. There was some evidence supporting this view. The low suicide rate among members of the Catholic Church may have been due to a sense of community, as well as the church’s opposition to suicide.
Before 1940 there were many suicides among immigrants to New Zealand, who may have lacked strong social networks. In Auckland, people with a continental European background had a high rate. However, this has not been the case among more recent immigrants.
Domestic and marital matters
Strong family bonds were some protection from suicide. Among male suicides between 1900 and 1950 only 39% were married, and most were not living with their spouses. About a third of male suicides were living in lodging or boarding houses. Married people have continued to have lower levels of suicide than the unmarried.
Since 1990 there has been a higher likelihood of suicide among young people when their parents were separated or there were high levels of marital conflict. This was especially true where children experienced sexual, physical or emotional abuse. Among the very young (aged under 16), those who had been involved with the social welfare authorities were 10 times more likely to commit suicide than other young people.
Unemployed carpenter Herbert Cooper hanged himself in the Auckland Domain in 1922 after writing on the back of an envelope: ‘No work. No money. No friends. Nowhere to go’.1
Economic and work problems
Before 1940 a man’s inability to earn an income was a significant motive for suicide. In Auckland between 1848 and 1939, work and money problems were evident among three in 10 victims, while among male suicide victims between 1900 and 1950 the figure was almost 18%. Married men were especially susceptible to this factor. The economic depression of the early 1930s accentuated this issue, especially among the unemployed and farmers.
Occasionally the issue was not money but shame around illegal acts – the secretary of an Old Foresters club in Auckland committed suicide in 1890 two days after his pilfering of funds was discovered.
Some have associated the rising levels of youth suicide in the 1990s with the effects of economic restructuring. At an individual level it is extremely difficult to establish causal factors. In 1992–95 unemployment fell, but suicide rates rose. While a higher proportion of people who died by suicide in the 1990s and 2000s were unemployed than the general population, they constituted a small percentage of all suicides. It was probably less the direct effects of unemployment which lay behind youth suicide than the social consequences of economic and other rapid social change.