Image: New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. Key's Australian counterpart has announced a massive reform package including $192 million in new funding for suicide prevention (sourced)
When you google "suicide new zealand" the thing that will move you the most are not the graphs or data - but the photos. The pictures of New Zealanders, young and old, Maori and Pakeha, from all walks of life - and the knowledge that when you click on one of those images they go from a photo to a story. The story of a life cut short as a result of suicide. Then there are the names. Nicky Stevens "the skinny little bugger from Ngaruawahia" who was just 21 or 15 year old Patrick Hanson-Friend. The Southland school boy who was a "well-connected, well-balanced...awesome all round kid" - the names and faces of the more then 4,300 kiwis lost to suicide in the last decade.
The suicide rate in New Zealand remains stubbornly high even though a ten year suicide prevention strategy had previously been put in place. The strategy, now up for review, was meant to be developed to arrest the rates of suicide in the small south pacific nation. In 2014-15 a total of 564 New Zealanders took their own lives with the estimated number of those who make an attempt estimated to be more than ten times that number. In figures released by New Zealand’s Coroner the number of New Zealanders who have died as a result of suicide has totaled 4,351 since 2007-2008.
Let’s put some perspective around that number – that means nearly every second day a New Zealander died by suicide during that period. How about some more perspective by taking a look at what the suicide rate is in comparison to the national road toll: in 2015, according to the New Zealand Transport Authority, 321 New Zealanders died on the roads while 564 died as a result of suicide. Again, some fresh perspective on money spent around awareness.
According to the New Zealand Transport Authority $13 million is spent on an annual campaign which “supports a police strategic enforcement programme of around $300 million. There are no figures available on the actual amount of money being expended when it comes to suicide prevention awareness.
The hard reality is we spend more money telling people to slow down than we do if they are ok.
address the impact of suicide on families, whānau and communities by strengthening support for family, whānau and communities
build the evidence base, specifically around what works for Māori and Pasifika
extend existing services, specifically addressing geographical gaps in the coverage of services
strengthen suicide prevention targeted to high risk populations who are in contact with agencies.
The next hard reality is that if those things had been achieved then the rates of suicide would not be going up. Specifically on item number two in relation to building the evidence base no credible or publishable research has been completed showing which programs are working and why; or why not. In addition, there does not appear to be a national map of the actual services being provided to communities or specific demographics because if there was – then more people would surely be accessing them. Which brings us back to the question of awareness and whether not New Zealanders know what they can access and where.
Director of Mental Health, Dr John Crawshaw, recently told Radio New Zealand that:
"We're now getting into the heavy duty and tough stuff and looking at a much more systematic approach. Talking about suicide prevention without looking at the wider social and justice sector intervention programme becomes unhelpful,"
Missing from that conversation, about the interplay between suicide prevention, mental health, the social and justice sector is the economic side of New Zealand life. As Neil Bateup, a farmer from Tw Hoe in the Waikato and who also chairs the Rural Support Trust, said:
"Financial stress plays itself out in all different ways; it can be relationship problems, it can be relationships between the farmer and staff, in some cases the farmer has had to let staff go, so they are actually working harder themselves ... and in behind all that is the fact that farmers do work on their own a lot and they don't have a big support network around them."
In some cohorts with high numbers of unemployment the stresses connected between lack of economic opportunity and suicide / mental health is also a connecting factor. At the beginning of 2015 a landmark report was published by the University of Zurich that attributed 45,000 suicide per annum to unemployment.
All of this is why New Zealand and New Zealanders need to have an open and frank discussion about the need for reform of that countries mental health system and approach to suicide prevention. Because if what was working was working then this editorial would not have been written and we sure as heck would not be having this conversation.
If Australia's Prime Minister can take action through wholesale reform then so too can New Zealand's Prime Minister. Time is of the essence.
We are interested in hearing your stories and your comments about the mental health system in New Zealand. Post your comments here, on our Facebook page or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal tendencies, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit Lifeline.org.au or in New Zealand on 0800 543 354
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