When silence just isn’t golden

Social policy advocates Professors Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber coined the concept of ‘wicked problems’. They did this to help leaders and policy-makers distinguish between one-dimensional challenges and others with complex, inter-related causes and particularly devastating effects. 

The fact that such problems are ‘wicked’, though, doesn’t mean that they deserve to have a cone of silence imposed over them.  Where a collective “shhhh!” is brought to bear by those in the know, in the hope that the issue might somehow resolve itself. 

New Zealand’s suicide rate is a truly wicked problem—particularly when measured against one of the criteria that make it so; namely that every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.  We have become world leaders in an area that’s robbing us not only of our youth, but also a potential cadre of ‘wise old folk’.  

Suicide rates in New Zealand are staggering. We have the fifth-highest rate for males and the eighth highest for females among all developed countries. Worse still, we have the second-highest rate of suicide among young people (trailing only Finland for males and Japan for females) and we remain one of a very small number of countries where the suicide death rates of young folk exceed those of older people. 

So why is this happening in a country that, on the surface, offers such fresh hope, possibilities and opportunities to embrace and savour life?  Is it linked to another wicked problem particularly prevalent in New Zealand – bullying?  Does it relate to the sense of macho-stoicism that some still see as defining the ‘true Kiwi bloke’?  As in ‘if you have a problem, don’t talk about it.’  Or is it a bit of both, with even more ‘wicked’ overlays involved? 

What can possibly justify shovelling mainstream discussion about suicide and its causes into the darkened back room of speculation and innuendo?

I believe the fact that our media are not allowed to report suicide (unless specific permission is granted by a coroner) is nothing short of pathetic. And Jurassic. In an age where folk, particularly young people, glean their news instantly from a huge variety of sources, not least social networking, what can possibly justify shovelling mainstream discussion about suicide and its causes into the darkened back room of speculation and innuendo?

If you’re wondering why I see fit to flag this as a PR issue, think about it for a sec. New Zealand’s disproportionate suicide rate is more than a national disgrace.  It’s a major ill impacting our society.  A society into which we all, one way or another, seek to weave the organisations or individuals we represent. We cannot remain aloof, detached or dispassionate about this.  We’re all part of the problem, and we’re all part of the solution. 

At France Telecom 24 employees have taken their own lives since 2008.  Workplace stress was cited as the principal cause and caused deputy CEO Louis-Pierre Wenes to fall on his sword – so to speak. Business is also being shackled to the issue in China, where our companies increasingly seek manufacturing and customer bases.

Congratulations to the Coroners for bringing it to light.  They’re showing leadership by saying: “let’s communicate and bring this national problem to prominence.”  Not for ghoulish fascination or false glorification, but in order that we all recognise the scale of the problem and are equipped to start doing something about it. 

I’ve had two very close friends commit suicide.  I remember at the time many around me wanted to ‘shut it down’ and not talk about the reasons so as not to further exacerbate the ‘shame’ the family must be feeling.  Or out of some repressed belief that ‘such matters’ were not for public discourse.  

The real ‘shame’ would be if ‘such matters’ were allowed to continue un-addressed, and unabated, for any longer. The issue’s been opened up for debate – now let’s show some leadership on it.

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One Response to When silence just isn’t golden

  1. The Oracle says:

    Suicide rates have to be understood relative to homicide rates. What really counts is the total number of deaths relative to population. By and large, suicide rates are highest in countries where homicide rates are low and vice versa. Where you have both high suicide rates AND high homicide rates you have really trouble, of course.

    Homicide rates are highest in countries with greater amounts of inequality — the US, for example.

    Suicide rates are ironically high in countries where there is greater equality — and better education (Scandinavia, for example).

    Bullying is a special problem that adds complexity — making suicide truly “wicked” as Dwight says since bulling can be epidemic where the importance of the individual is stressed (NZ) or in countries like Japan where the importance of the group is stressed. In NZ everyone is supposed to be an “individual” but “equal” — despite a not so hidden social hierarchy. So you get bullying, which establishes the hierarchical order by marginalizing people who somehow don’t fit in. You “get with the program” or you are screwed.

    In Japan, it is easy to identify people who don’t fit in. Once again, you get “equality” (we are all the same) along with the hierarchy (follow the leader). Bullying weeds out misfits and puts fear into the hearts of those who might deviate from normalcy.

    Truly a “wicked” problem.

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