There is a way we can help our children and young people

Published Aug. 10, 2017, 3:09 p.m.

Making New Zealand the best place in the world for children, is something very close to my heart. Last year, I felt compelled to write a paper on how we could achieve that and address the tragedy of the ongoing negative statistics and outcomes for our children and young people. Indeed, this is what led me to co-founding (what is now) the Graeme Dingle Foundation, with my wife Jo-anne Wilkinson 22 years ago.

Despite being fortunate to live in one of the world’s most beautiful places, there is an underbelly of suffering that many never get to see. Our statistics around children and young people are appalling and have been for many years; the latest UNICEF report reinforces this - NZ is currently ranked 34 out of 41 and has the worst rate of youth suicide – quite frankly, this isn’t good enough.

Our high suicide rate is indicative of a much wider range of issues in this country. The metaphor of an iceberg is a good way to describe this – the 10% above the water being suicide and the 90% below water all the stuff that leads to that sense of hopelessness.

We believe that the key to turning this around is to get in early. It’s a whole lot more effective, and avoids unnecessary pain and expense, to build a fence at the top of the cliff (surrounding a happier and more resilient community), than it is to continually send ambulances to the bottom. We need to start with building emotional resilience in all our children and young people.

We know that not everyone gets the same start in life and many grow up in difficult environments or have many challenges thrown in their path. There are thousands and thousands of New Zealand kids who are bullied, depressed, lack self-confidence or who are vulnerable for a whole range of different reasons. Through building self-belief, confidence, respect, positive relationships, and providing the skills and support to make better decisions, we have seen how lives can be improved, now and into the future. I have personally seen thousands of desperate kids turn their lives around with this process.  However, it is absolutely crucial that this support starts as early as possible, as it’s much easier to help a child, than it is to fix an adult. 

A critical time in a young person’s life is their transition into high school, as this usually coincides with huge periods of change. The move from a little pond to a great big pond is like learning how to swim again. Peer mentoring programmes can play a significant role in giving our young people opportunities to make them feel connected within their community, with a strong sense of self-worth - because those that understand young people the most, are young people themselves. Being able to teach our kids to develop more positive and respectful relationships vastly improves their ability to work with others and resolve conflict independently.

Teaching them life skills and ways to cope with different situations, before they know that they need it, can equip them from the inside out, rather than the outside in. If we can transition our young people safely into high school, creating opportunities for relationship building and a sense of connectedness, then the years after that are far less traumatic for them. Support for young people doesn’t always have to come from adults, it can come from their peers too and peer mentoring programmes can play a significant role in this. For example, having that big brother or sister or older student walk alongside and grow and support them will help and develop more positive and respectful relationships and can vastly improve a young person’s ability to work with others, resolve conflict independently and give them hope for the future.

Teaching life skills and coping mechanisms early, building strength from the inside out, develops that crucial emotional resilience to deal with whatever life throws at them. Support needs to be there day after day, week after week and year after year – there is no quick fix – this is not a project – but rather a transformational journey.

Unfortunately, suicide is a silent epidemic and it doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor.  We’ve done good work, but there’s so much more work to be done and it will take the ‘village’ to care enough to reduce the youth suicide rate dramatically and to make New Zealand ‘the best place in the world for young people’. My plan says that we can do this by 2050 and I will do everything in my power to ensure that this happens. New Zealand - will you come on this journey with me?

By Sir Graeme Dingle, co-founder of The Graeme Dingle Foundation 

View the research on promoting Resilience and Well-Being here