Image: suicide rates in New Zealand climb as questions are asked about the Ministry of Health
I would like to tell you that the challenge of suicide prevention in New Zealand will be solved soon – but I cannot. To do so would be a lie. As many of you will know I have spent a significant amount of time in New Zealand over the course of this last nine months speaking with many thousands of my fellow Kiwis and have traveled to more than forty cities, towns and communities during that time. Why? Because suicide doesn’t just touch one group of us – it touches the entire nation. From our farmers and lawyers, to our young people, our men and women, pakeha, Maori, pacific islanders, Asian New Zealanders – old and young alike, men, women and children. The employed and unemployed, the rich and the poor.
This is not just a mental health issue it is an economic one just as it is social. But, try and understand what the Ministry of Health is doing and you could be forgiven for thinking that the lights are on but no one is home. Since May of this year, and as early as March, I have been seeking a meeting with the Minister of Health and the Director of Mental Health, Dr John Crawshaw. Finally a meeting took place on the 16th of November and it validated what I already knew – but first some context:
The suicide rate in New Zealand is the highest it has been for more than a decade according to data released by the Chief Coroner just over a month ago. In, fact the number has gone from 564 New Zealanders to 579. But here’s the thing – in the meeting with the Minister and Dr Crawshaw they tried to tell me that the rate had not gone up but instead had remained static because the New Zealand population had increased. What a joke. In other words they tried to tell me that one plus one did not equal two it somehow equaled ten. New Zealanders know a weasel play on words and the rational for the manipulation of the number is terrible at best and disgusting at worst. The truth is more of our fellow citizens have taken their lives and their families and loved ones care not for weasel words or the fashioning of a story based on a public servants interpretation of the data.
The other reality is that the Ministry of Health has been working on a new strategy after the complete failure of the last decade long plan. Yes, that’s right – a new plan because the last one obviously didn’t work. But, tell me this, how can you trust a Ministry of Health when they couldn’t even put in place an evaluation framework of the previous ten year plan? If the rates are still going up, more people are seeking help and there is no sign of that changing can someone please tell me how we can trust Dr Crashaw and the Ministry?
The absence of a plan that includes the interplay between the social and economic elements of our society, the failure to have a plan for the credible academic research that is required to provide the evidence of what is working as well as the absence of a plan to ensure there is inter-agency collaboration means we are back at square one. And then there is the absence of a National Mental Health Commissioner who can co-ordinate and monitor the sector – because the truth is the vast majority of people I have spoken with do not trust the Ministry of Health.
Trust and reliance are things all New Zealanders put a lot of faith and hope in. So, forgive me for saying I, like countless other kiwis, have not faith in the Ministry of Dr Crawshaw. After the meeting with the Minister I attempted to reach out to Dr Crawshaw to see if we could put any bad feeling there may be behind us. I then emailed him last week but, his response pretty much sums things up – that Dr Crawshaw thinks he knows what’s best and that suicide prevention is not as pressing as other matters – and these are his words, not mine: “Thanks for your email. I will come back to you in the future but other matters including the ongoing psychosocial response post earthquake is pressing at present.” (Dr Crawshaw by way of email on the 25th of November).
When it comes to the Minister, Jonathan Coleman, I have to say this is not a problem of his making and, I am sure he understands where I and many others are coming from. The Ministry of Health have had ownership of this strategy long before Dr Coleman came to the role and they will have ownership long after he is gone.
Solutions have been offered and include:
The suspension of the current draft suicide prevention plan and a return to the drawing board by way of being more inclusive of a greater number of people and organisations, including other government departments and stakeholders
A move to design a five year strategy as opposed to a decade long one – a five year plan that will innovation to be applied and lessons learnt from the roll-out in other countries
The implementation of a specific plan for young people, children and their families
A specific plan for Maori
The reestablishment of the National Commissioner for Mental Health
The establishment of a national research agenda that will be able to provide evidence of what is working and what is not A review of the delivery of mental health services in New Zealand and what systems reform may be needed
As I reflect on my meeting with the Minister, his officials and Dr Crawshaw, there is one thing that I take away that I would rather not. That smug smile on a public servants face whenever he was challenged or whenever an idea was put forward. While I may have faith in the Minister, I do not have any faith in the man responsible for the design and delivery of a suicide prevention strategy for my fellow New Zealanders. It is time for a change.
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
About the author
Matthew Tukaki is a New Zealander, Chair and CEO of NewsNow and EntreHub and the Chairman of the National Coalition for Suicide Prevention (Australia). He has been involved in the suicide prevention sector in Australia and New Zealand from a reform perspective. He is formerly the Chairman of the WorkWise Group and Head of Drake International, the oldest and largest employment company in the world.
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