Monday, May 03, 2010

The Suicide Set List

According to Ministry of Health figures quoted in the latest newsletter of the suicide prevention group SPINZ, youth suicide rates in this country have declined by nearly half from what they were in the mid-nineties, and yet remain high by international standards.

It is common knowledge that youth suicide rates in New Zealand skyrocketed during the second half of the eighties and the first half of the nineties. I had the misfortune to be young during this period, which also saw a massive rise in unemployment, a dip in the average wage, big cuts in benefits, and severe restrictions on the rights of trade unions. For many young people, it wasn't the easiest of times.

During 1989 and 1990 there seemed to be almost an epidemic of suicides and what coroners call 'suspicious deaths' at Rosehill College, and I would regularly attend the funerals of classmates. As a snotty-nosed, self-consciously alienated fifth former who listened to The Clash and The Smiths, I tended to blame the spate of suicides on vague concepts like 'the system' and 'bourgeois teachers'. Certainly, the principal of our school, who was fond of lecturing us about equally vague concepts like 'discpline' and 'responsibility', seemed outwardly unperturbed by his institution's growing reputation as a death trap.

What I didn't know in 1990 is that the principal for whom we used to invent unwitty nicknames like 'Mr Robot' knew the name, grades, and background of every one of Rosehill's thirteen hundred students, felt personally bereaved every time one of his charges suicided, and tried to stop the flow of deaths with a variety of increasingly deperate measures. After one death, our principal became so desperate that he descended on the school library and began to remove any book with a reference to suicide in it from the shelves. Sylvia Plath flew into the dustbin, followed by Camus, before one of the school's English teachers took her distraught boss by the arm and quietly pointed out that his plan would force him to dispose of much of Shakespeare. That way lay madness.

In our society, many people like to respond to suicide in the way that my old school principal initially did. The media seldom announce and publicise a death by suicide, for fear of creating a 'copycat effect'.

As the nineties went on, Rosehill College experimented with a new tactic to cope with the threat of suicide: a special group was set up for vulnerable students, where they could talk about their problems and get help from professional agencies. The group was dissolved after one of its founders and leading members committed suicide.

In a fine essay prompted in part by the loss of his own son, the senior New Zealand sociologist Dave Beddgood calls for the open discussion of suicide, rather than a 'tyranny of silence'. Bedggood defends the controversial 'Yellow ribbon' movement, which organised high-profile boxing matches to raise money for suicide prevention and which talked openly about suicide. He complains that Yellow ribbon, which was a grassroots initiative by people who had lost friends and family to suicide, was 'hounded out of existence' by arrogant health professionals. Bedggood argues that youth suicide will decline if young people are empowered to discuss and deal with the issue:

We can see that on the many [web]sites where people talk openly about suicide. The majority of responses are painful, confused and fatalistic – symptomatic of alienation. But there is also much expression of love, sympathy and hope for the future. While these sites are helping to talk about suicide they lack direction towards organized systematic prevention. We need not only suicide prevention groups on the internet but the mobilization of young people in schools, the workplaces and in the wider society to actively intervene in the causes of depression and suicidal behavior.

The Yellow Ribbon peer based approach has the potential of providing the missing link and filling the black hole in the official orthodoxy. Young people need young people to talk to and to support one another. It is a terrible indictment on our society that we do not act on the strongest evidence that we have, that young people talk to young people.

I'm not sure what I can contribute to the sort of process Dave describes, as I'm most certainly no longer a 'young person' in even the most tendentious sense of the phrase, but I thought I'd mention that the forthcoming issue of Landfall, New Zealand's longest-running literary journal, includes my poem 'The Suicide Set List', which looks back on the spate of suicides at Rosehill College in the late eighties and early nineties. The characters in the poem (and it is a poem, not a short story, whatever the editors of Landfall think) are composites of a number of students who were at the school with me, rather than identifiable individuals.

The Suicide Set List

A few days, a few weeks later, I remember stopping, in the doorway, and looking back, at my unmade bed, at the coffee mug that smelt of stolen vodka, at the posters advertising gigs I was too young to see, at the stack of half-read novels on the desk, at the record that had rolled out of its cover across the room until it leaned against the turntable on the floor, like a tyre waiting to be fitted.

I remember thinking that, if I were to walk out the door, jump on my bike, and ride, fast, downhill, through the rain, through the first red on Takanini Strait, then the random objects of my room would become sacred, inviolable. Instead of shouting at me to tidy up, my mother would stand silently in that doorway, and cry, and then chase the cat off the bed, and carefully lean the record my father had put away back up against the turntable’s blown speaker. All my friends would come to admire the room, making mental notes to buy their own copies of the books on my desk, to listen again to the bands advertised on my wall. All of them except you, who knew better.

We used to joke about it, riding through the cemetery, on the short cut from the tinny house back to Youngs Cres. We’d shout song titles at each other as the headstones sped by, until we’d assembled a set list, a mix tape you swore you’d make. You even asked your Dad, who was still practicing law then, to help you write a will. He’d laughed, at the idea of you leaving anyone money, but you’d only wanted to put down some of your best jokes. Don’t Fear the Reaper. Bela Lugosi’s Dead. I Am the Resurrection. Your favourite, Another One Bites the Dust, which you wanted us to play while your coffin was being carried away. It would be, you said, like playing DJ at a family function. It would be a last stand, against sentimentality. Against boorjwah morality. A way to say fuck you to them all, without having to see them shake their heads, to see them walk away. Yeah, right, take another toke, I’d say.

Your sister said the undertaker was a hippy. I said he was just tight. He wouldn’t pump you full of formaldehyde, said that the scent of decay was better than the smell of chemicals. You, who always loved to fill yourself with chemicals, must have felt cheated of a last hit.

Your body already felt cheated. Your body had grown from a tiny smooth animal that did nothing but cry and shit, into a skinny boy who dropped catches in the covers and went regularly over the handlebars of his bike, before at last reaching something like regulation size. Now it had lost its right to bulge and wrinkle, to grow grey hairs and varicose veins, to expire in an overheated hospice bed surrounded by bored great-grandchildren and the clicks and flashes of incomprehensible machines.

As it lay on the stainless steel tray, waiting to be fed to the fire, your body took a sort of revenge, living its lost decades in a couple of days, ageing a few years every hour. Your skin turned yellow, then pale green, as though it were registering some disease of the old. The rope marks on your neck and jaws darkened and deepened, until they looked and smelt like bedsores.

You never made that mix tape, and I didn’t tell anybody about it, at the planning meeting, the day before, in the messy room you left. I was afraid that your parents, who had always warned you about me, so that they could warn you about yourself, would think I was making the songs, making your set list up, the way I made the bust at the tinny house up, the way I made the fight with Sean Sands up. I let your mother and sister burn their own CD, even downloaded some stuff they wanted, but didn’t have – something by Enya, and I Will Always Love You. I was making a last stand, I guess, for boorjwah morality. I remember crying and singing along with the others, as you creaked along that conveyor belt into the fire we couldn’t see.


Blogger Dave Brown said...

Good poem Scott.
The point about youth is that you have to catch them at the age your poem is about. By getting them to act out Shakespeare for one thing. Especially in modern dress. The only thing I enjoyed in the 6th form was Shakespeare and biology and the latter was because I went to a co-ed school.
SPINZ now talks about the age groups in the 30s and 40s as now more at risk than the 14-24 group without the slightest inkling that they are survivors who get tired of surviving.
There is no official use made of statistics that follow individuals through their lives that can trace early suicide attempts preceeding later suicides.
This is the sort of statistic that allowed Robert Whitaker to show that medication may cause mental illness. Of course this doesnt exclude the possibility that other individuals could have arrived at the same illnesses without medication. But it sure shows that the claims of success are overblown at best and lies at worst.

11:06 pm  
Blogger Sandy said...

Yes suicide is a very sad thing but I feel also, a very deliberate thing of course not a new phenomenon.

Just read paperspast site via National library of New Zealand. Many many young people suicided and in horrible ways. It's a human thing. It will always be around unfortunately.

I have a family member that suicided...tried several times before succeeding. I feel it's in some peoples paths and i think it's more for the living that those that are left try to make sense of it, to give it a reason for happening. Those that have died - i think sometimes have more bearings on life than we understand.

12:08 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is pretty close to home. My nephew committed suicide last year, a week shy of his 30th birthday. His siblings went to Rosehill for a time but I can't remember if he went there at all before going to a private school; He would have been several years behind you anyway.

Dave makes a useful point about survivors who get tired of surviving. I dont know what my nephew's like was like in the lead up to his death but as far as I am aware there was no history there, not obviously anyway.

He left behing a partner, a dog, a house and the rest of us (scratching our heads). He did it in another country, in the home of a close relative, almost guaranteeing that the usual miserable few days from death to funeral was drawn out over several weeks, and even harder (if that is possible) for his close friends and relatives. But in life he wasnt the kind of bastard who made life difficult for people, so why choose to do it that way?

I think its long past time where where not talking about suicide is an adequate strategy for a community, and probably says more about our own fear and discomfort than anthing else. While publicising suicide might encourage and hasten the end for a few who really see no other option, surely a greater number on the cusp might be diverted?

1:08 pm  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

Yep, Scott, that's a poem.

Doesn't look like a poem, but I read it out loud and - oh boy - it's a poem all right.

A damn good poem.

A bloody sad poem.

Sad enough to make my voice crack before I reached the last line.


2:59 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

Scott - excellent poem...

The only person in my whanau who committed suicide was an 18yrold 2nd cousin: drove car at very high speed into large concrete wall. Left note - just 5 words "There is too much pain." An engaging young man, who, aside from becoming vegan at age 13 (which was a bit unusual in whanau experience) was quietly friendly, quietly social, quietly able in several areas.

Talking is a really good idea if anyone feels suicidal - but frequently, people (young or older or really old) just dont know who to talk to - and remember,
suicide attempts used to be a criminal offence...

6:27 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott -I have read that poem as you know - it is a great poem.

Dave is right about the need to talk.

It is essential that young people - everyone talk about suicide. Of course not to be obsessed, with a view to looking at causes etc
This may not prevent but it will help people deal with it etc

I read a book about suicide. The main cause for the general populace is in fact financial.

For others it is hard to define. Plath had some inherited to psychological problem from an early age. 'The Bell Jar' is much about herself.

N.Z. has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the "developed" world.

Suicides I think unconsciously or in other ways maybe "taking revenge"...whatever the causes or reasons we need to acknowledge the reality of suicide as Dave has and wants us to do more.

10:34 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I also read a book about a young (N.Z.) man's death by suicide, written by his family, that was tragic, but quite strange. The book just outlined his life and so on: he was good looking and good at sports etc etc but there was no attempt to point to any cause.

I suppose that at least was honest.

But the book seemed rather eerie and empty...

Good responses here by Dave, Sandy Keri and Chris.

That cry, Keri "There is too much pain" is haunting.

Van Gogh shot himself with a revolver, as he was dying he said "There is too much suffering."

10:42 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Thanks for the comments folks. Anon, I hope the poem didn't resonate with you in the wrong way - the last thing I want to do is upset people.

I thought Dave's essay on suicide was very good, and perhaps very unusual too, because it drew both on his personal experiences of bereavement and his training as a sociologist - it therefore seemed to have both a personal warmth (if that's the right word), and a strong factual background. Of course Dave brings his politics to the essay, but I think that his point about the importance of empowering young people could be accepted by many people with politics quite different from his.

Keri's comment about the illegality of suicide in the past reminds me of a passage in Ian Richards' superb biography of the writer Maurice Duggan. After unsuccessfully trying to take his life, Duggan found himself in a ward of Oakley psych hospital. A doctor was making the rounds, and Duggan heard him say to the man in the next bed 'Are you sorry you tried to kill yourself now?', to which the patient replied 'No, I'm not, I wish I had succeeded'. The doctor then turned to his assistant and said 'well, there's nothing for this one but electric shocks'. Duggan quickly resolved to tell the doctor how sorry he was to have attempted suicide, how eager he was to make a new start, and so on. The cruelty of the way suicidal people were treated, even as late as the '60s, when Duggan made the attempt on his life, is astounding. I hope we have made some progress since then.

11:01 am  
Blogger rob said...

Strong poem: thanks. Close to the bone for me, too- though it's more than a decade since I lost my 29-year-old brother, suicide leaves deep scars.
Just finished Rohinton Mistry's "A Fine Balance" and this resonated in several ways.
Depression is a part of life and can spark all manner of wonders. But it's also and always a shitty shitty thing.

2:45 pm  
Anonymous 60 Mpa said...

Hi Scott

Right about the same time (83-87) I remember three friends gone down here in Wgtn.
One was the classic "I'll show them" 14yr old using his old man's 22 when his girlfriend dumped him and another older one was mentally ill with depression - invited everyone to a party then did the deed before they got there. Ironically only about 3 people turned up.
The one that cut was a fragile lad who watched his mother die of cancer and just gave in to despair completely. Jim was 16 and the colour had drained out of his world, I guess.
2 things that I think are under-researched - boys and men tend to choose more irreversible methods of despatch such as hanging and firearms or so I am told.
The invisible ones are all those blokes who were cut loose in the 80's and beyond who don't appear above the parapet too often but make a show of self-sufficiency.
Half of them probably read that mag "The Shed" - perhaps they could do a readers poll haha
Pardon my gallows humour but it's tougher to live.

9:44 pm  

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