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NZ a deadly place for youth

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Author Topic: NZ a deadly place for youth  (Read 10 times)
« on: May 20, 2012, 01:40:04 pm »

Even before 18-year-old Sina Naraghizadeh saw the red and blue flash in his mirrors and the officer approach the stolen stationwagon, or before he switched his foot from the brake to the accelerator, his family knew he did not learn from his mistakes.

Before he lost control of the car on a greasy road last year and hit a tree, a lamppost, and then rolled, his family believed he was a good boy finding the transition to manhood difficult.

And before Hobsonville Rd was left littered with glass, metal and a lingering smell of petrol, Sina was known to those who loved him as a lost soul.

His story is not unique.

"Unfortunately," his uncle Saeed said, "some people, they end up like this, it's sad to see, so sad to see."

Dr Nick Baker calls it a journey to death. Look back on a particular type of young person's life and, with hindsight, you can almost predict if they will die by injury or suicide, or end up in prison.

New Zealand teenagers are more likely to die young in car crashes or by suicide than in almost every other developed, high-income country.

In a four-part series released this month, the medical journal The Lancet analysed the biggest health risks to people aged between 10 and 24 globally.

New Zealand had the second highest overall mortality rate, the highest suicide rate in those aged 10-24 among developed countries, and the fourth highest rate of road deaths.

Young males were the biggest victims.

Unfortunately, says Baker, the chairman of the Child and Youth Mortality Review Committee, the findings are nothing unusual.

JUST PAST the cemetery, tucked into a small gravel area hidden off the road leading up Nelson's Marsden Valley, is a memorial: In memory of the Stoke boys who lost their lives 1939-1945.

Two years ago, a kilometre back down the road, glass and debris littered the area. But for the date and the sober brass on stone, that memorial could have been for three other young men, who all lost their lives when a car left the road.

On that quiet Sunday morning a Ford Telstar rested upside down, one of its doors embedded two metres up a tree. Three young men were dead, another alive.

"Young men have been taking risks since time immemorial," Baker says. Beyond the reach of memory, record or tradition, they have experimented with danger and impulse.

Auckland Youth Health physician Simon Denny says it's an important part of growing up. "Adolescents need to discover their own strengths and weaknesses in a variety of situations, not only to experience success, but to learn to cope with adversity and defeat."

Letting young people fall and injure themselves is a healthy part of learning adverse consequences. "But if the first time you learn those consequences is smashing into a tree, that's lethal."

From the age of 15 to 18 the mortality rate from car crashes almost triples, before falling back again by the time 24 is reached 75 per cent of those who die are male.

The question Baker raises is obvious: Why, when people are getting bigger and tougher and the human animal is at its strongest, do more die?

He says there are links between the two biggest killers suicide and road deaths.

Alcohol is one, intervention the other.

Instead of schools teaching the "three Rs", Baker says three more should be included risk, resilience and relationships.

"Schools need to talk about risk assessment and risk competence, knowing it's the biggest problem for young people."

They need to give young people environments in which to learn those risks, and realise the dangers associated with them. And it needs to happen before 14. After that, he says, the pathway is largely set.

Research on brain development shows although the frontal lobe, responsible for skills such as impulse control, is still developing through the teen years and into the early 20s, young people still have the same ability as adults to understand the consequences of risky behaviour.

Denny says that suggests young people can understand risks, but are more willing to disregard them. So risk-taking needs to be understood beyond biology. Environment matters.

Baker says given the option, most young people will make a reasonable choice, but give them alcohol and they will make the wrong one. Dare them to do it, and they will. When a relationship breaks down, or they witness violence, that can also see fatal choices.

For a long time the early years in our children's lives were not on the policy radar, Baker says. But that's changing. The Government's "Drivers of Crime" initiative takes these vulnerable years into consideration. It looks at alcohol, low-level offending, behavioural support and early parenting.

The numerous physical, social and mental health issues faced by New Zealand adolescents were also the focus of a detailed report released last year by the prime minister's chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman. And this month, the Government launched a wide-ranging series of schemes aimed at improving youth mental health and death rates. The plan is worth $62 million over four years, with schemes serving schools, families and communities.

While the youth suicide rate has fallen 40 per cent since 1998, crash deaths have remained static. There is still some way to go before Baker's role is not needed.

He says the initiatives show the Government is finally beginning to understand. "If just some of the money spent on imprisonment or treating head and spinal injuries was moved upstream to where it was really needed, the results would be clear."

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