Wāhine Māori suicide rates rising

Why is there a growing number of Māori women dying by suicide? Laura Walters reports.

The number of Māori women taking their own lives is rising, as wāhine face high levels of trauma, deprivation and marginalisation.

In the 2019 financial year, 685 people died by suicide, rising from 668 the previous year. The rate of deaths per 100,000 people rose from 13.7 to 13.9.

This is the highest number of deaths by suicide since Coronial Services began collecting the data 12 years ago.

On Monday, the Chief Coroner released the annual provisional suicide statistics, which showed the number of Māori dying by suicide rose significantly, with 169 Māori dying by suicide in the past year, up from 142 the previous year.

Buried within those figures is a disturbing upward trend of wāhine Māori suicides.

Historically, men have had the highest rates of suicide, particularly middle-aged men. Men aged 15 to 29 now have the highest rates of suicide.

The suicide rate among young men has been the focus of many media reports over the past week, and rightfully so. However, Māori experts and those with lived experience have pointed to the untold story of wāhine Māori.

Te Rau Ora chief executive Maria Baker said there was a commonly held but mistaken belief that women didn’t kill themselves – that men died by suicide; women self-harmed.

A specific breakdown of gender and ethnicity of the latest coronial provisional statistics is not currently publicly available. But the most recent Ministry of Health figures show Māori women died at a rate more than double that of non-Māori women (10.1 people per 100,000 versus 4.9 people per 100,000 respectively). These figures, which are collated in a different way and over a different period, are lower than the 2019 coronial figures, which put the Māori suicide rate at 28.3 people per 100,000, compared to the overall suicide rate of 13.93 people.

Te Rau Ora head Maria Baker said there was very little discussion about why more Māori women were taking their own lives. Photo: Laura Walters 

Baker said the story of wāhine Māori suicides was a wider societal story, and one that's all too familiar.

The number of Māori who took their lives had doubled in the past 10 years, with the number of wāhine Māori dying by suicide rising.

These are the same women who encountered disproportionately high rates of family violence and intimate partner violence. These events caused trauma, which was a significant risk factor in suicide deaths.

Colonisation and marginalisation of Māori had also contributed to disproportionate incarceration and removal of children.

Women, as life-bringers and nurturers, were deeply affected by separation from children and support networks, Baker said.

Māori women were taking their lives, “and they’re doing it brutally”, she said.

These deaths had a huge impact on tamariki and on communities, particularly rural Māori communities.

There were also wider societal factors facing Māori women, including higher rates of deprivation, homelessness, and disconnection from land and culture, Baker said.

Māori women were also more likely to leave school with a lower qualification, and go into low-income jobs.

These same risk factors and dynamics were seen in indigenous populations across the world, Baker said.

The impacts of colonisation, marginalisation and deprivation were often discussed when trying to understand the over-representation of Māori in other poor outcomes, such as the criminal justice system and in having a child uplifted by Oranga Tamariki. It was also a significant factor in understanding the rise in the suicide deaths of Māori women.

A current Waitangi Tribunal claim is investigating these issues and the impacts on wāhine Māori from Crown breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

“All those wonderful things New Zealand was known for - the land of milk and honey ... we’re a far cry from that.”

The Mana Wāhine Kaupapa Inquiry was launched last year, examining about 120 statements of claim relating to the alleged damage caused by Crown actions to customary roles of wāhine Māori, and their relationships with their lands and whakapapa, along with the impact on the status and wellbeing of wāhine Māori in relation to things like employment, whānau and sexual violence, child protection and welfare, the justice system, education and health, and Māori women in leadership and decision-making roles.

Earlier in the week, when the annual suicide figures were released, Baker said Māori had been calling for New Zealand to prioritise Māori suicide prevention, and to better understand the issues affecting Māori.

“These statistics show just how urgent that call is. Māori are key to the solutions needed in our communities.”

While the drivers and risk factors of suicide and self-harm are varied and complex, Baker said if she had a magic wand to change one thing that would make a significant difference, it would be deprivation.

“Socio-economic deprivation is a major issue for us.”

People are more likely to take their own lives when they don’t have an income, a sense of purpose, warm dry housing and an education.

“All those wonderful things New Zealand was known for - the land of milk and honey ... we’re a far cry from that.”

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson also raised the issues of homelessness, deprivation and other societal factors as key factors in the rising suicide rates.

Moe Milne, a Māori advisement specialist with 40 years’ experience working in the mental health sector, also raised the issue of the underlying issues driving poor mental health outcomes for Māori during the launch of the first cross-party mental health and wellbeing group at Parliament on Wednesday.

She spoke about the importance of looking for appropriate solutions for Māori, and she and others also warned about the risk of normalising the suicide deaths and poor mental health and addiction outcomes of Māori.

Baker said while the suicide trend was distressing, there was a lot to be proud of in terms of the place of Māori women in New Zealand.

The reclamation of the tā moko, and the growing number of wāhine in leadership roles showed tangata whenua were able to flourish.

The way to turn lives around and move towards success was through initiatives and services based on te ao Māori, she said, adding that these programmes and services did exist, but needed to be more readily available across the country, and that meant more resources and up-skilling workforces.

Where to get help

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email [email protected] or online chat

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

What's Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.

Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.

thelowdown.co.nz – or email [email protected] or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825

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