It is no big news that we have a terrible rate of suicide death in New Zealand. It’s even less news that it’s particularly epidemic in vulnerable communities, like among transgender youth. Charlotte Loh’s death is the most recent to have gotten publicity but it’s hardly unusual and none of the causes she cited in her suicide note are a surprise. Lack of parental support (extending to abuse, in her case and in many others), the difficulty in accessing appropriate health care, inadequate understanding and acceptance from institutions such as universities. The situation for trans people and especially trans women (even moreso when they’re not white, again as in Charlotte’s case) is dire in New Zealand. In many cases these deaths aren’t even seen. People are misgendered by their families in death, their identities squashed so that only those who accepted them in life ever remember them properly.
We have legislative restrictions on discussing suicide that are intended to prevent copycat deaths, but these are clearly not working. The idea that talking about the problem will just give people ideas is, frankly, a stupid one. People already have the idea. They are forced to it, bullied towards it day after day after day until they feel they have no other option. They will go to desperate lengths. In the last few days on Manus Island, people who have fled torture and hatred in their homes have been driven to such drastic lengths as drinking cleaning fluids because their situations were so bad. (Please never, ever do this. Even if it succeeds in killing you, it’s a horrific way to die.) I’m not equating the two situations – they’re different issues and both worthy of attention and compassion – my point is that preventing discussion of suicide that is complete, open and honest does nothing to prevent further deaths. In fact it can cause a great deal of harm as people try things that are unlikely to actually kill them but highly likely to cause serious injury and lifelong disability. If we are serious about preventing harm we can’t focus on hiding information, we need to fix causes. It’s not like we don’t know what they are, after all. We’ve been told.
Unfortunately the solutions cost money. It’s easier to just slap a $1000 fine on people who say that Charlotte killed herself before the coroner officially rules it as self-inflicted than it is to properly fund mental health services, trans health services, to educate public institutions on how to treat trans people with dignity and respect, to promote the idea that trans people are people who deserve dignity and respect so that the message might filter through to more families. It’s hard, I know. Some people will never hear that message no matter how loudly we say it and how many people say it with us. But some will. Over time, more will. And if we’re really serious about saving lives we need to commit to that, to actually talking about the problems and the lives lost and our failures. Not to hiding it all away like some shameful family secret. As long as we do that more people like Charlotte will continue to suffer and we will be complicit in their deaths.