8 Nov 2019

Suicide prevention needs wider approach - new office's director

1:19 pm on 8 November 2019

Suicide often has contributing factors beyond just mental health, and engaging more directly with affected families can be a huge benefit to investigation, the head of the new Suicide Prevention Office says.

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Photo: 123RF

The office announced in September is responsible for implementing the government's Every Life Matters suicide prevention strategy, as well as providing better direction and leadership.

Its first director, Carla na Nagara, is one of the New Zealand's longest-serving coroners and began in her new role just over two weeks ago on 21 October.

She told RNZ's Morning Report today that in the cases she had dealt with as a Coroner, there was often more than mental health problems that had contributed.

"In many many other cases there are other drivers, other factors that have contributed and that makes the challenge to lower our suicide rate significant. It's a big challenge ahead.

"Social circumstances, adverse childhood events ... alcohol and drug use contribute. Exposure to family violence was a really key thing I noted in the context of the suicides of young people.

She said she wanted to acknowledge that many of the cases she dealt with involved grieving, devastated families and communities, and the focus on suicide rates sometimes lost sight of that.

Ms na Nagara has written previously about the need for Coroners' suicide investigations to take a wider focus on the life of the person.

"As a coroner I felt that our more traditional ways of investigating - which are driven by the sort of the western judicial system model that's very paper based -wasn't necessarily effective in engaging with some communities particularly Māori communities.

"I guess the model's premised on engaging with thefamily face to face, with the whānau face to face, talking them through the porocess and then engaging with them to understand the life stories of their young ones."

She said she felt every New Zealand family would "absolutely" benefit from such a model.

"I felt that it gave me a much greater insight into the context of suicide, particularly when the person who died didn't have any engagement with any services. Sometimes there had been and it was important to look at the nature of that engagement - but when there had been no engagement with any services it was really important, I felt, to understand that wider context."

Asked about Mike King's gumboot fund, which last week ran out of the $1.3 million it had raised to provide free counselling services quickly to those in need, Ms Na Nagara said safe and effective services were absolutely needed, but whether the minstry should top up that particular fund was not in her area of expertise.

"I understand that the ministry have made an offer to have discussions with Mr King about possibly him applying for funding but really I don't know much more than that."

The Suicide Prevention Office is housed in and supported by the Ministry of Health, but the government intends it to become a standalone entity in coming years.

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