In the early 21st century about 500 New Zealanders died each year by suicide – more than in motor accidents. For those aged 15–24 suicide represented a significant proportion of all deaths: a third of all male deaths and half of all female deaths. New Zealand’s rate of suicide was about average internationally, although moderately high compared to similar developed countries. However, it was very high for those aged 15–24. Provisional data showed an increase to 668 deaths by suicide in the year 2017/18.
Suicide – the act of killing oneself – is a major social issue in New Zealand, with a large economic, social and personal cost.
Besides those who kill themselves each year, there are also about 7,000 admissions to hospitals for intentional self-harm, and many more people seriously consider suicide. More than one in seven people will consider killing themselves at some time in their lives, and over one in 22 attempt it.
As well as those who either kill themselves or attempt to do so, many more people are hugely affected – parents, partners, children, siblings, friends and workmates. They have to carry the emotional pain of guilt, sadness, longing and lost opportunities.
In monetary terms, one study suggested that in 2004 the direct annual cost of suicides and attempted suicides was over $23 million police, coroners, victim support and health care. If the loss of productive years of life was considered, the total was over $200 million; and if non-economic costs such as quality of life were included, the total was $1.4 billion.
Cultural influences can shape who in a society is more likely to die by suicide, the method used, how such deaths are regarded, and how they are depicted. For example, in traditional Māori culture suicide was associated with those who were bereaved or shamed. Women sometimes killed themselves following the death of their husband.
Suicide also had a distinct place in the European cultures which came to New Zealand. It was associated with despair, failure, guilt and the avoidance of pain.
Suicide is a theme in many prominent fictional works. For example, any reader of Shakespeare will know that suicide was an accepted response to social shame in his plays, in which there are 13 definite and eight possible suicides. Among the overt suicides, at least seven are depicted as admirable in the circumstances.
In the early years of European settlement of New Zealand suicide rates were fairly low, although there was clearly some disguising of suicide, for example as accidental drowning. Until the 1890s the annual rate never exceeded 10 suicides per 100,000 people.
Numbers rose from the end of the 19th century and reached a peak just before the great depression, with an average of 18.5 suicides per 100,000 in 1927–29. The rate then levelled off, declining fast during the Second World War and falling below 10 per 100,000 by the early 1950s. This was a very low rate in international terms.
Throughout these years about four times as many men as women died by suicide, although the variation over time in rates of male suicide was much greater than that of women. However, while more men died by suicide, more women attempted it – over 1.5 times as many.
As in most societies, the likelihood of death by suicide rose with age. Old people whose lives had become painful or disappointing were more likely to commit suicide. Among Auckland’s suicides in the 19th and early 20th century, more than a quarter of the male suicides were aged over 60, and about half were in their 40s and 50s. In 1930 the rate of suicide among those over 45 was more than 35 per 100,000, whereas for those aged 15–24 it was about five per 100,000.
From the 1970s the overall rate of suicide rose, reaching a peak of 16.7 per 100,000 in 1996–98.
Among males the rate rose steeply from 15.7 per 100,000 in 1978–80 to 26.8 in 1996–98. Female rates were between four and seven suicides per 100,000. On the other hand, females were hospitalised for self-harm in greater numbers over these years, reaching double the number of male hospitalisations.
Mirroring trends in other western societies, from the mid-1980s the pattern of suicide increasing with age was reversed. By the mid-1990s people aged 15–34 had a suicide rate of over 25 per 100,000, and among young males it was well over 40. Rates for those aged over 45 fell to about 13 per 100,000.
Then, from 1996 to 2015, the rates of suicide decreased by about 20%, while remaining relatively high among the young compared to other age groups. The highest rate of suicide (15 per 100,000) was recorded in 1998 and the lowest occurred in 2014 (10.8 per 100,000). The total rate in 2015 was 11 per 100,000, but there were significant differences between the rate for males (16 per 100,000) and females (6 per 100,000). In 2019/20 the provisional rate was 13 per 100,000.
The highest rates of suicide in 2015 were among those aged 15–24 (16.9 per 100,000), followed by the age groups 25–44 and 45–64 (14.4 per 100,000). Two-thirds of all self-inflicted deaths occurred among 25–64-year-olds. Males were more likely to die by suicide in all age groups.
In 2015 the suicide rate for men aged 15–24 was 20.3 per 100,000, while for women it was 13.2 per 100,000. Suicide deaths were 29.6% of all deaths for men 15–24 years and 41.8% for women in this age group. New Zealand had the fifth highest rate amongst Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for male suicide in this age group and the highest rate for female suicide. New Zealand had the highest rate of teen suicide in the OECD, at 18 per 100,000 for those aged 15–19 (19.6 per 100,000 for males and 16.3 per 100,000 for females). In this age group, the rate for females has been getting closer to that of males.
There is considerable variation in rates of suicide in different ethnic groups. In 2015 the overall rate for Māori was 17.8 suicides per 100,000, compared with 9.6 for non-Māori.
The high rate of suicide among Māori is a recent phenomenon. Until the 1950s it was about half the general rate. Then the numbers increased, and since 1996 the Māori suicide rate has been higher than the non-Māori rate. Māori suicides were heavily concentrated among the young. In 2015 the Māori male youth suicide rate (ages 15–24) was 28.4 per 100,000, compared with 18.4 for non-Māori males in this age group. The rate for Māori females in this age group was 35.3 compared to 7.5 for non-Māori. About a quarter of Māori male suicides occurred in prison. Older Māori continued to have lower rates of suicide than young Māori.
Females are twice as likely as males to be admitted to hospital for intentional self-harm – often, suicide attempts. Those aged 15–24 are over-represented among those admitted for intentional self-harm – a third of hospital admissions in this category. Three-quarters of young people hospitalised for self-harm are female. Rates for Māori are higher than those for non-Māori.
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.
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 die by 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
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 died by 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.
Mental illness, especially depression, has consistently been regarded as the most important causal factor for suicide. In the 19th century about half the coroners’ verdicts on suicide were that the victims were 'insane'. Between 1900 and 1950 there was evidence of psychiatric illness among two in five women and more than one in six men who killed themselves. Sometimes depression among women was brought on by such events as menopause or childbirth (post-natal depression). Among men the effects of war were significant. Physically maimed and emotionally traumatised by the First World War, more than 600 returned soldiers killed themselves.
In the early 21st century researchers concluded that up to 70% of people dying by suicide or attempting it were suffering from mental disorders. People discharged after in-patient treatment for psychiatric illness were more likely to take their own lives and are in fact the group at highest risk of dying by suicide.
Recently it has been acknowledged that social factors are also key contributors to suicide rates, and that the causative role of extreme psychosocial distress (rather than mental illness) may have been downplayed in more traditional research.
Alcohol is a major factor in suicides among men. About one in eight male deaths by suicide between 1900 and 1950 were related to alcohol abuse. Often heavy drinking was associated with unemployment and marital troubles. A 1990s study of Christchurch young people who made serious suicide attempts found that 31% had symptoms of alcohol abuse and 12% of cannabis dependence.
The worst effects of alcohol often came out during delirium tremens or ‘the horrors’, when people had paranoid delusions which might lead to suicidal acts. In 1874 Thomas Swann, a Kaiapoi workman, cut his throat with a razor while his mates were at work, because he thought the ‘devil was after him’. 1
Among youth suicides there is usually a combination of factors, such as a disrupted family background, mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, and a recent relationship disruption.
When there were few available painkillers, escape from physical illness was a common reason for suicide. Until 1939 more than 40% of those over 60 who killed themselves in Auckland wanted to avoid continuing illness. Improvements in pain relief help explain the drop in older suicides since then.
Suicides caused by romantic situations had varied motives. Sometimes it was just heart-break. ‘Your words have severed every cord in my heart and I hope to have a long quiet rest’, wrote Anthony Paterson to his girlfriend before his suicide.2 Sometimes it was jealousy: ‘By the time you get this I will be gone forever and you will be free to carry on your intrigue with a married man’, one man wrote to his wife.3 Sometimes it was even more complicated – Pat Johns wrote, ‘I have found myself doing the most horrid things to hurt [his wife]...’4 To forestall a terrible deed, he took his own life.
Suicidal attempts were often triggered by life crises. Sometimes it was the death of a close relative; more often it was a breakdown in a romantic relationship. This was especially the case for younger people. Between 1900 and 1950 romantic rejection was the cause of almost one in five male suicides and one in three female suicides among those aged under 20.
There is also increasing evidence that people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender of intersexual have a greater risk of suicide. This is almost certainly related to stigma and discrimination which can occur anywhere, including within families.
The high rate of Māori youth suicide in the 21st century has been attributed to similar factors – mental illness, drug abuse and family disruption in the context of Māori social and economic deprivation. More recently it has been acknowledged that the effects of colonisation remain far-reaching and must be considered as a contributing factor.
Methods people used to kill themselves change over time, largely on the basis of knowledge of and access to different ways of dying.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries the most common method of suicide was taking poison. In Auckland before 1939 this accounted for almost a quarter of suicides. Poison was often chosen by women, who had easy access to disinfectants like Lysol (used for cleaning baths and drains) and to phosphorous matches.
Poisons were also available on the farm, where strychnine, cyanide and arsenic were used against rabbits and other pests. Between 1890 and 1950 almost one in five male suicide victims poisoned themselves. While most 19th-century poisonings were by liquids or solids, the arrival of reticulated domestic gas changed the situation. Fewer than 4% of Auckland suicides killed themselves by gassing in the 1910s, but in the 1920s the proportion rocketed to 26%.
For men the most frequent means of suicide was firearms. In rural areas guns were readily to hand for hunting. Until 1920 more than a quarter of suicides shot themselves. As society became more urban, shootings declined, but this remained the leading method for men. From the 1930s until about 1960 shooting was the most common method of suicide.
The next most common methods were hanging and drowning, which each accounted for between 10% and 20% of suicides before 1940. However, suicide by drowning was often difficult to distinguish from accidental death.
Since most men possessed a razor for shaving, cutting was a more common method for men than for women. Between 1890 and 1950, 12% of male suicides died that way.
Jumping from high places was much less common, except in Auckland where Grafton bridge was a common location for such suicides. After safety barriers on the bridge were demolished in 1996, the number of suicides by jumping from the bridge increased. New tempered glass barriers were installed in 2003.
During the 1960s and 1970s, poisoning by solid or liquid substances became a more common method of suicide. Many were overdoses of pills. From 1979, as the number of suicides among the young began to rise, hanging and poisoning by carbon monoxide from car fumes increased dramatically. Shooting and other forms of poisoning declined.
In 2015, 62% of suicides, both male and female, were deaths by hanging, strangulation or suffocation. This method was especially used by young people (83%) and Māori (90% of suicides), and was common in prison, where few other methods were feasible. Poisoning by car-exhaust fumes had declined from 28% in 1997 to 9% in 2008 – partly because imported cars were required to be fitted with catalytic converters which prevented poisoning. Fewer than 10% of suicide victims shot or poisoned themselves. The reduction in shooting was partly because the Arms Act 1983 and the Arms Regulations 1992 had restricted access to guns, and the reduction in poisoning was helped by restrictions on the availability of drugs. The erection of barriers at well-known jumping spots was also effective in reducing that cause of death.
Since the 19th century in New Zealand, as in other western countries, spring has been the most common season for suicides.
Women are much more likely to kill themselves in their own homes, while up to a third of male suicides occur in public places or buildings.
In British tradition the main social forces against suicide were legal and religious sanctions. Christianity saw suicide as a sin, and there were restrictions on the burial of a person who had died by suicide. Suicide was a crime in England from the 13th century. At that time the lands and goods of people who had died by suicide were forfeited and the body was buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart.
Forfeiture remained in the law in the 19th century, although it only applied to felo de se – deliberate acts – and not to those who had a mental disturbance (designated as non compos mentis). In 1846 the power to determine such verdicts in New Zealand was granted to coroners with a 12-man jury. The jury was reduced to six in 1885, became optional in 1908, and was abolished in 1951. Coroners continued to deliberate in the cities, but in rural areas inquests were often conducted before magistrates. Felo de se verdicts were rare – two out of 60 suicides in 1883. There were only isolated examples of religious exclusion from normal burial practice, and no record of property forfeiture. Felo de se verdicts were feared by relatives due to the shame and social ostracism which might follow.
From 1893 suicide was not a crime, but attempted suicide remained a crime until 1961. However, after 1900 it was not regarded as a serious crime – about 50 people a year were brought before the magistrate’s court charged with attempted suicide, but most were either discharged or convicted with sureties for good behaviour.
Some of the language in 19th-century suicide verdicts was fierce. In 1859 a coroner decided that James Stagg, ‘Not having the fear of God before his eyes, but moved by the instigation of the devil’ slew himself ‘feloniously, wilfully and of his malice aforethought.’1
Although attempted suicide and suicide itself were no longer crimes after 1961, euthanasia and assisted suicide remained serious crimes. This became a fraught area in relation to people suffering from painful or terminal illnesses. The Voluntary Euthanasia Society pushed for legislative change but two private member's bills failed in Parliament. In 2008 the society claimed that 71% of New Zealanders supported medically assisted dying for people with an incurable illness. The issue was highlighted in 2004 when former nurse Lesley Martin was convicted and imprisoned for the attempted murder of her dying mother.
In 2011 Sean Davison was charged with attempted murder for assisting the death of his mother. He later pleaded guilty to inciting and procuring suicide and was sentenced to home detention.
In 2015 Lecretia Seales, a terminally ill Wellington lawyer, brought a case to the High Court in 2015 arguing for her right to assisted death under the Bill of Rights Act 1990. Seales died naturally on the same day the High Court released its judgement refusing to issue the declarations she sought.
An End of Life Choice Bill introduced as a private member's bill by ACT MP David Seymour was drawn from the ballot and passed its first reading in December 2017. If this bill became law, New Zealanders aged 18 and over suffering from a terminal illness or a grievous and irremediable medical condition would have the option of requesting assisted dying. Despite a record number of submissions – 35,000 – a select committee made no recommendations for change when it reported back to Parliament in April 2019. In mid-June 2019 the bill's fate remained uncertain.
In the 19th century there was extensive and highly dramatic coverage of suicides. Wellington’s Evening Post had no less than 8,601 stories on suicide between 1865 and 1915 – an average of more than one story every two days. The headlines for these stories – such as ‘A sensational suicide’ or ‘Melancholy suicide’ – demanded attention, and full details of the circumstances were reported.
In 2009 two Victoria University researchers were scanning social networking websites like Facebook and MySpace to identify key words that might indicate a risk of self harm. Their technology picked up phrases such as ‘depressed’ or ‘I don’t want to live any more’. The people deemed at risk were then sent a gentle message and given links to helpful information.
Such coverage was questioned as the incidence of suicide shifted from older to younger people. International research strongly suggested that media coverage of suicides could contribute to subsequent suicides. People pointed to clusters of suicides and copy-cat behaviour, especially among the young. Media guidelines for the safer portrayal of suicide deaths are now available in many countries, including New Zealand.
The Coroners Act 1988, which stated that where a death was believed to be self-inflicted and an inquest was not completed, no one could make public any details of the manner of death. Following a determination that the death was self-inflicted, only the name, address and occupation of the dead person could be published unless the coroner authorised further publication – a rare occurrence.
Following Law Commission recommendations in 2014 the Coroners Amendment Act 2016 was passed. This allowed the news media (including social media) to report a death as 'suspected suicide' before a coroner's inquiry if the facts supported such a description. The chief coroner was able to allow the reporting of a suicide if the risk of copycat behaviour was small and outweighed by public interest. Restrictions on reporting the details of methods of suicide used by individuals remained.
From the early 1990s concern about rising levels of youth suicide in New Zealand stimulated concerted research and action. In 1998 the Ministry of Health, with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Te Puni Kōkiri (the Ministry of Māori Development) issued a youth-suicide prevention strategy. The initiatives that followed, included SPIN, a suicide-prevention comic book for young people by cartoonist Dylan Horrocks; and SPINZ (Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand), which aimed to disseminate high-quality information in an accessible form. Symposia and seminars on suicide were also held.
In 2004 the government’s youth strategy was extended to include action against suicide by New Zealanders of all ages. The New Zealand suicide prevention strategy 2006–2016 aimed to:
A new national suicide prevention strategy is currently being developed. It will by informed by He Ara Oranga – the November 2018 report of a government inquiry into mental health and addiction. Most of the recommendations of this report have been accepted by the government, including those relating to the prevention of suicide and support for people left bereaved by suicide.
Beautrais, Annette. ‘Suicide in New Zealand I: time trends and epidemiology’. New Zealand Medical Journal 116, no. 1175 (2003).
Beautrais, Annette. ‘Suicide in New Zealand II: a review of risk factors and prevention’. New Zealand Medical Journal 116, no. 1175 (2003).
Beautrais, Annette, and others. 'Effective strategies for suicide prevention in New Zealand: A review of evidence'. New Zealand Medical Journal 120, no. 1251 (2007): 1–13
Clifford, Anton, Christopher Doran and Komla Tsey. 'A systematic review of suicide prevention interventions targeting indigenous people in Australia, United States, Canada and New Zealand'. BMC Public Health 13 (2013): 463–474
Collings, Sunny and Annette Beautrais. Suicide prevention in New Zealand – a contemporary perspective: social explanations for suicide in New Zealand. Wellington: Ministry of Health, 2005.
Luke, Peter. ‘Suicide in Auckland, 1848–1939’. MA thesis, University of Auckland, 1982.
Weaver, John C. Sorrows of a century: interpreting suicide in New Zealand. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2014.