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Australia and New Zealand Focus on Preventing Youth Suicides

Besides the new Russian and Baltic states, New Zealand and Australia have some of the highest suicide rates in the world, according to World Health Organization data.

The highest male suicides rates were found in the war-torn countries of Lithuania, the Russian Federation, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and Hungary. The highest female suicide rates were in China.

In 2000, about 1 million people died by suicide.

While the highest suicide rates tended to be in countries undergoing civil unrest, two stable countries—New Zealand and Australia—had youth suicide rates that exceeded the world ratio.

New Zealand and Australian youth suicide rates put them in the upper third of the rates for all industrialized nations. Both countries have allocated millions of dollars and launched extensive suicide prevention campaigns.

In New Zealand, youth between the ages of 15-24 accounted for 25 percent of the total suicides each year. In one decade, youth suicide rates increased 15 percent (22.6 in 1989, 26.1 in 1998).

While male youth suicides leveled off, female youth suicide rates have almost doubled from 7 percent in 1989 to 13.3 percent in 1998. Young women between the ages of 15-19 accounted for most of this increase over the last five years, according to a report by Annette Beautrais, principal investigator for the Canterbury Suicide Project in New Zealand.

In 1998, Australia reported 2,683 suicide deaths with over 40,000 attempts per year, according to the Youth Suicide Advisory Committee report.

While increases in New Zealand’s youth suicide rates were largely attributed to females, in Australia the increase was largely attributed to males.

The suicide rate in Australia among males aged 15 to 24 years tripled from 1966 to 1990, the report noted. In 1997, 29.2 percent of all deaths in Australia for young men aged 15 to 24 were due to suicide. For females the rate was 18.4 percent. Only the number of deaths through motor vehicle accidents was higher.

Although one might expect the stresses of city life to yield more suicides, this was not the case in Australia. In remote rural regions, suicide rates for young males were nearly twice those of males living in cities. The metropolitan youth suicide rate peaked in 1995 at 19 per 100,000; the rural rate in 1991 was 30.8 per 100,000 but the remote rate increased in 1994 to 36.4 per 100,000, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Rates of youth suicide in indigenous communities have been increasing for many years in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States.

The Beautrais report noted that in New Zealand suicide rates were higher for indigenous Maori youth (males, 56.1 per 100,000 in 1998; females, 24.4) than for non-Maori youth (males, 34.2, females, 10.5).
Since the 1970s, suicide in Aborigines under age 29 has been increasing, according to “Suicide in Australia: Trends and Data for 1997” in the Australian Injury Prevention Bulletin. The Aborigine suicide rate was estimated to be 40 percent higher than the general population.

Likewise, indigenous peoples in North America were more likely to commit suicide than the general population, according to Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal peoples and the U.S. Center for Disease Control.

Social and economic disadvantages were cited as the primary risk factors for youth suicide in New Zealand. Poor economic and health conditions were the major risk factors for the Maori.

Depression is now one of the most common mental health problems for young people in Australia and the highest risk factor for suicide. It is the precursor to problems such as school failure, family and peer disengagement and substance abuse. Fifty to 75 percent of all suicides were linked to depression, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

In addition, some experts think suicide stems from improvements in the standard of living and quality of life for young people in western countries. Young people have more education, better physical health, more possessions and leisure. So, the experts argued, they have fewer external sources to blame for their misery. This increases their psychological distress and may lead to suicide. AIHW suggested that the way to counter this is to involve adolescents in activities they find meaningful and fulfilling.

Ray Furr is a Baptist minister and freelance writer in Poquoson, Va.