Boldness needed to tackle suicide rates

News from Chief Coroner Deborah Marshall that a record 606 people took their own lives in 2016/17, up from 579 the previous year and 564 the year before that, shows that how this country is tackling suicide is not working.

This month Health Minister Jonathan Coleman announced a $100 million allocation to fund 17 initiatives to bolster mental health services and try to stem New Zealand’s appalling record on youth suicide, which is the highest in the developed world.

My message to Dr Coleman is that bold, new approaches are needed.

It is great that he has stated youth suicide is his top priority.

Also on the right track is the discussion paper published last month by the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, that called for more primary intervention starting early in life.

However, primary intervention can do only so much. It is front-line services which deal with people contemplating ending their life, where most of the focus should be.

Non-statutory organisations exist essentially because most official services don’t work. Beefing up crisis help-lines like Youthline and Samaritans is a first step to prevent suicides.

What Dr Coleman should do is channel away from institutions like psychiatric hospitals and units, switching funding to charitable and not-for- profit organisations working on the front line.

It is a fact that these organisations save more lives than formal services.

Having worked in suicide prevention for 35 years – 15 of those within the psychiatric system and 20 outside – I seriously caution Dr Coleman and district health boards against spending more money on hospital beds.

This is my third visit in six years to conduct suicide prevention workshops for various groups; and, anecdotally, it looks like New Zealand, currently, is following the institutional approach that I was brought up by in the 1970s.

This approach is based on medicating, containing and controlling patients but fails to really engage with them as people. From what I have been told, currently, the system is short on talking treatments.

Putting someone in a psychiatric hospital increases significantly, the likelihood of suicide both as an inpatient and following discharge. Continue reading

  • UK-based John Henden, author of Preventing Suicide: The Solution Focused Approach, was brought to New Zealand to conduct workshops for the Samaritans, Life Matters and Napier Events.
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