With its rolling green landscapes and slow pace of life, New Zealand has long been the destination for emigrants searching for a better life for themselves and a great place to rear children.

A rising teenage suicide rate cracks that image.Suicide is the second biggest killer of New Zealanders aged between 15 and 24. As in many nations, the problem is more common among young men.

"The suicide rate for young New Zealand men is nearly three times higher than their counterparts in England and Wales," said Max Abbott, director of the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. It is slightly below the U.S. rate.

Abbott said studies of hospital admissions in 1987 showed one in 500 teenagers attempts suicide.

"This is a very conservative figure because a lot are not reported," he said. "It is certainly a major health problem."

A health department study entitled Suicide Risk and Prevention said it was not abnormal for teenagers to think about killing themselves.

"During adolescence . . . there is an increase in physical and emotional activity . . . moods swing, and their behavior becomes extreme," the report said.

Barry Taylor, who works on a National Youth Council program to combat the problem, said that besides the normal pressures all teenagers face, economic pressure takes a toll.

"Unemployment is a major factor, said Taylor, adding that youths are told they are welfare cheats and lose self-worth.

With unemployment at 8.0 percent in July - very high by New Zealand standards - high school graduates have found few prospects.

The Rev. Charles Waldegrave, a worker with Anglican church family services, said he believed there was a link between unemployment and suicide.

"New Zealand is a great place to grow up in if you are in the top 60 percent of incomes," he said. "It is not if you are in the bottom 30 percent."

Suicide is contagious.

"There is a real phenomenon we call the suicide virus," said youth worker Taylor. "If one person in a group of friends does it, it is likely another will try it."

New Zealand's National Youth Council established a youth mental health program last year in response to the rising suicide rate. Its aim was to promote mental health among young New Zealanders. It includes training programs for youth leaders and courses on stress.

Lack of support has been a problem. Taylor said he knows of only one Wellington psychiatrist specializing in adolescent problems.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, the number of suicides for males 15 to 19 years old have increased to 15 to 16 per 100,000 in the early 1980s against about three per 100,000 in the 1960s.

In the 20 to 24 year age group, male suicides increased to between 27 and 28 per 100,000 from about six per 100,000 people in the 1960s.

For female teens, the rate was about seven per 100,000 in early 1980s. Experts theorize that males here have a higher suicide rate because society puts more pressure on them to succeed.