National | Alcohol

'lively and loved': Kōtiro suicide linked to alcohol

Warning: This article discusses suicide and could be distressing for some people.

Enilose Wanita Mounga had a bright future ahead of her.

The 16-year-old had a supportive family, good friends and was doing well at school. She was a valued member of a sevens rugby team and was keenly developing her musical talents.

But on September 16, 2017, the teen's life came to an abrupt end, leaving those who knew her best shocked by her self-inflicted passing.

With no history of mental health issues, no known prior thoughts of suicide and no warning signs, Mounga's death was baffling.

Only now has a Coroner been able to shed some light on what caused Mounga to take her own life – and it comes with a warning to all parents and guardians of adolescents about the risks involved when supplying alcohol to young people.

Coroner Janet Anderson has determined Mounga died by suicide and that alcohol consumption was a contributing factor.

Mounga's actions were impulsive and out of character, the Coroner found. She said they were largely, if not entirely, due to the consumption of alcohol.

"If she was not intoxicated, it is highly unlikely that she would have acted in the manner that she did on the day of her death," she said in her findings which have been publicly released today.

"Her sad death illustrates the dangers of adolescent drinking and the relationship between alcohol use and suicide."

A birthday tragedy

On September 15, 2017, the South Auckland teen attended a 21st birthday celebration with family in Papakura.

There were a number of people present and they were sitting in a garage near the house drinking alcohol.

Mounga was a part of this group, though the coroner was told she was "not drinking that much".

Everyone was enjoying themselves and those who were present described Mounga as "happy and in a good mood".

However, as the night wore on she became upset.

Around 3am, Mounga turned to a family member who was sitting next to her, shook the person and told them to "listen".

Shortly afterwards, she left the garage and walked towards the house. About an hour later she was found dead by family members.

Inquiries into the death

Following her death, a toxicology analysis found Mounga had a blood alcohol reading of 158 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood - a blood alcohol level three times the adult legal driving limit.

Apart from caffeine and cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine, no other drugs were detected in Mounga's system.

A friend told police officers the teen was known to drink alcohol, estimating it occurred every "2-3 weeks".

Police interviewed a number of people following Mounga's death.

"Their inquiries indicated she was a friendly girl who was usually very loud and happy at school. She was close to her extended family members and had a number of good friends," the Coroner's findings detailed.

Mounga was sitting exams the week before her death and had not raised any issues with friends during this period.

There were no indications she had ever talked about suicide.

The principal of the high school she attended said in year 11 Mounga joined the girl's sevens team and became a valuable member of the squad. She showed particular strength in English and catering and received a catering and hospitality award at senior prizegiving that year.

In year 12 she joined a trade academy where she spent time working on her culinary skills, she attended voice lessons to extend her musical talent and completed a customer service course. Academically her first three terms of the year were described as strong.

Mounga did not have any regular contact with school counsellors and there were no obvious changes in her behaviour observed at school prior to her death, the principal said.

A report from Mounga's GP stated the teen did not have any known mental health problems and there was no record of any previous suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts or ideation. There were no known family stressors.

Was it preventable?

In her findings, Coroner Anderson said there did not appear to have been any major warning signs that would have alerted those around Mounga to the possibility that she might end her life.

"There is evidence from a number of sources that her actions on September 16, 2017, were out of character and her death came as a great shock to all those who knew her."

She was clearly distressed about feeling "unheard" and had become upset throughout the course of the night, she said.

"However, her actions were unexpected and out of proportion to the situation. I have formed the view that Enilose's impulsive actions were in large part, if not entirely, due to the consumption of alcohol."

Coroner Anderson was satisfied that alcohol use was the "major modifiable factor" in Mounga's death.

She said the events that occurred that evening were a "textbook example" of the risks and dangers identified by experts on the subject.

"Enilose's death was a tragedy. She was a lively and loved young woman who would have had an exciting and rewarding future ahead of her. Her life came to an end after she acted impulsively after consuming alcohol."

What the experts have to say

In 2017, then Chief Science Adviser Professor Sir Peter Gluckman released a discussion paper on youth suicide, noting that adolescence is a period of relatively poorly developed self-control and heightened impulsive behaviour.

The Coroner's findings reference Gluckman's paper, in which he stated New Zealand data showed that considerably more than half of youth suicides involve alcohol or illicit drug exposure.

"Alcohol intoxication or a history of alcohol abuse are often associated with youth suicide. Alcohol misuse is often associated with triggering events [conflicts in peer and intimate relationships] and, in relation to suicidal behaviours, is probably underestimated and under-reported," he found.

"Furthermore, alcohol reduces self-control, can increase despair and depression and, among those with mental disorders, exacerbates symptoms."

Also referenced in the findings was recent research published in the New Zealand Medical Journal reinforcing the strong link between alcohol use and suicide.

A study by Dr Rose Crossin and others found around one quarter of all suicides over the study period of 2007 to 2020 involved acute alcohol use. This was particularly prevalent in population groups known to have higher suicide rates, including young people and Māori.

The authors hypothesised, based on international findings, that those who die by suicide involving acute alcohol use are more likely to die impulsively following acute stressful events, rather than having psychiatric or physical co-morbidities.

The findings pointed to alcohol use being an important point of intervention in youth suicide and recommended that interventions targeted at alcohol should be included in New Zealand's suicide prevention strategy.

Coroner's comments and observations

Coroner Anderson stated the relationship between alcohol consumption and youth suicide was clearly established.

"Intoxicated people, particularly teenagers, can be at increased risk of suicide and may respond unexpectedly or disproportionately to upsetting or unexpected events after they have been drinking."

The Coroner urged parents and guardians to be alert to the risks of alcohol use during adolescence.

These include impulsive behaviour, reduced self-control and an increased risk of suicide.

"I strongly encourage parents and caregivers to take these risks into account when making decisions about supply of alcohol to young people in their care."

Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• What's Up: 0800 942 8787 (11am to11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Helpline: 1737
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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