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Elder suicide

Suicide has been a topic on many minds this week as news reports of Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean’s release of annual suicide statistics hit the papers, air waves, and social media on Monday.

The annual statistics held both good news and bad. The good news is that the overall suicide rate is slightly down from last year; that fewer pre-teens and teens have taken their own lives; and that, for the first time since 2007, the suicide rate amongst Maori has fallen. The bad news is that while the overall rate of suicide has fallen, it has not fallen that much, leaving New Zealand with one of the highest rates of suicide in the OECD.

When the Coroner made his release he highlighted a particular phenomenon in the statistics: that the group committing suicide at the highest rates are men aged 85 and older (31 per 100,000). MacLean is very worried about this particular statistic, and he has called for more research to be done into why such a considerable proportion of elderly men are taking their own lives. 

In some of these cases, MacLean has insinuated that the suicides may be instances of assisted suicide or euthanasia, both of which are illegal in New Zealand and thus likely to be classed simply as suicides. This is no minor facet of the larger phenomenon, and I hope that researchers who tackle the reasons for the high rates of elder suicide and ways to prevent it will also explore some of the deeper issues involved, most especially what it is that gives value to human life and how we can best support that. 

Old age can be a very frustrating and isolating time in today’s world, where people are not only living longer than they used to but also living largely apart from extended family structures and care. It’s good to see some focus brought on these issues and an expressed desire to confront them.

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