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.
Depictions of suicide
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.
Suicide rates from the 1970s
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.
Rates by age
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.