Suicide prevention: Experts say money and clear plan needed

9:29 am on 27 August 2019

Mental health experts have called on the government to establish a clear plan and invest more money to reduce the national suicide rate.

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Across the country, 685 people died by suicide in the year to 30 June. Photo: 123rf

Figures released yesterday show the number of suicides in New Zealand rose for the fifth consecutive year, with a sharp increase among teenagers and Māori.

There were 13.93 suicides per 100,000 people this year, up from 13.67 last year, the annual provisional suicide statistics showed.

Across the country, 685 people died by suicide in the year to 30 June.

There were sharp rises in the number of Māori and Pasifika people dying by suicide, with respectively 17 and 11 more deaths than the previous year.

The number of young people aged 15-19 who committed suicide rose by 20 to 73.

Health Minister David Clark said a suicide prevention strategy would be released in the coming weeks.

Ōtaki was hit by a series of suspected suicides last year.

Ōtaki College principal Andy Fraser said in his school there was just one guidance counsellor for all 500 pupils, and the people responsible for the students' wellbeing were overworked.

"Our guidance counsellors who work tirelessly in secondary schools are, I think, completely overburdened. If they don't have the resources that's a big weight to be carried on a small number of people's shoulders."

He hoped a new government strategy will kickstart a reverse of the trend.

"We can't just do one-offs. This has got to be a long and sustained intervention if we're going to see a reduction over time.

"How do we build the capacity of mums, dads, brothers, sisters, friends to actually look after one another?"

Health Minister David Clark told Checkpoint the government was taking mental health seriously by allocating $40m towards suicide prevention including bereavement counselling, and the prevention strategy would be released within weeks.

But National Māori Authority chairperson Matthew Tukaki said the government should have established the strategy before investing.

"I understand that the government have said they're going to put all this money into addressing this problem. It's actually not the money. The money has come too soon. What we need to be doing and need to be doing quickly is investing in an actual plan. What is the plan?

Mr Clark said it was important to get the strategy right. "We have a shameful suicide rate in New Zealand. All of us want to make that different. Having a strategy in place that guides people is really important."

Dr Maria Baker, head of Māori wellbeing organisation Te Rau Ora, hoped that meant a radically different approach to dealing with Māori suicide rates, with money allocated directly to Māori, who are affected by suicide at a disproportionately higher rate than Pākehā.

"What we need to have happen is to see the government shift the pūtea (funding) to us so we can get it to our people faster," she said.

"There are processes certainly under way, but given the situation it can't be quick enough.

"We can make the decisions, we can make the change, but we need the resource."

Ms Baker told Morning Report countries with indigenous populations that had been colonised were experiencing a similar number of losses.

"When you think about that, it's embedded across most peoples across the world with significant histories of oppression and other challenges."

She said it was important to recognise that for Māori, environment is a really important maker of wellbeing, alongside culture and idenitity.

Understanding each community and what the challenges are is also important, she said.

And constant threats to Māori communities include racism, inequality, inequity and bias.

Ms Baker said long term interventions, where programmes were focused on building the resilience of young people, were important.

"We certainly believe in our Māori communities that the answers are in our home, and in our communities. There are people, there are champions in whānau but together within communities across sectors and services we need to do this together and we've got the will to want to do this."

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson was also hoping to see real change soon. "I guess in the government's support, I was very pleased to hear when they announced the overall budget of $1.9 billion over 4 years, they immediately said 'this is just the start', so we've got to be cautiously optimistic."

Mr Robinson told Morning Report a strategy was needed several years ago and the previous government dragged the chain on responding to the issue.

"We haven't been doing anything different for a number of years so we can't expect a different result."

Mr Robinson said services are only one small part of what is required.

"It's a multi-faceted approach that we need."

Of those approaches is equiping the community to support each other.

"It is actually the thousands and thousands of caring New Zealanders ... equipping ordinary people to be able reach out when they see the signs that somebody is distressed and understanding those signs where someone's behaviour may be changing."

Mr Robinson said people don't need all of the answers but they need to be there and stay with someone who says they are thinking about suicide.

He said to let the person know they are cared for and you will help them through it.

Inequality, poverty, unemployment and housing issues are all critical factors behind the increase in the suicide statistics, he said.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see those some of those really basic factors and stressors in a person's life and can add to other factors and really tip someone over the edge," he said.

"We need to reduce those drivers of people's despair, we need to equip the community to be able to support each other and reach out to one another, we need to have services available when people are really struggling."

With the national strategy due to be announced in the coming weeks, Chief Censor David Shanks said he hoped it would mean more organisations, with more people, with greater expertise, would be able to get round the table and discuss meaningful change.

"I think we're all very hopeful that the strategy will be able to put ourselves and other agencies literally on the same page, about the direction of travel and the roles that each individual agency can play, in making a difference in this space."

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email

What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.