Take a look at the graphs below, from the Mental Health Commission’s National Indicators 2011 report that uses 15 indicators to measure the mental health of the population.

The top graph shows the results of a 2006 international Gallop poll that measured life satisfaction among participants in OECD countries.  New Zealand came out looking pretty good – we are above the OECD median when it comes to a measure of life satisfaction, a statistic that is backed up by the 2008 New Zealand General Social Survey, which found that 86 per cent of New Zealanders are “satisfied with their life”.

Now take a look at the second set of graphs, which the media has seized on today. They show that New Zealand has relatively high rates of youth suicide compared to OCED countries, and that New Zealand has the highest rate of suicide across the OECD for women aged 15 – 24.

Source: National Indicators 2011

Source: National Indicators 2011

Source: National Indicators 2011

Source: National Indicators 2011

So we are generally satisfied with our lives, but our young people are taking their own lives at a rate much higher than the OECD median and at a rate that sees us claim the dubious distinction of leading the OECD for youth suicide in young women. So what’s going on here?

Well, even the scientists aren’t sure.We asked respected researcher Professor David Ferguson, from the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago what he made of the data sets released in the report. He responded:

“The reasons for countries like New Zealand and Finland having high rates of suicide despite high reported satisfaction are by no means clear. The things that links these countries are that they are small liberal democracies with high rates of alcohol consumption but whether these factors have any bearing rates of suicide is also unclear. There is no intrinsic paradox in a country having a high rate of suicide and high life satisfaction bearing in mind that life satisfaction refers to the views of the majority and suicide to the behaviour of a very small minority.

“While there have been a number of speculative comments about New Zealand’s high rate of suicide,  there are no generally accepted explanations for this. One possibility that needs to be considered is whether national differences reflect differences in reporting accuracy.

Key findings of the report included:

• The majority of New Zealanders (86%) report feeling satisfied with their life as a whole

• People less likely to report feeling satisfied are middle-aged, Mäori, Pacific and those from low socio-economic neighbourhoods

• The suicide death rate has improved since the mid-1990s. In 2008 the suicide death rate was lower than in the mid-1980s

• The proportion of the population accessing secondary mental health and addiction services has increased from 2.2% in 2002/03 to 2.7% in 2008/09

• Overall, people with symptoms of mental illness or addiction feel less included in society

• Young people appear to be the most socially excluded of all groups among people with symptoms of mental distress