Suicide Prevention Plan – Expert Reaction

A Suicide Prevention Office will be established to coordinate efforts to reduce New Zealand’s high rate of suicide.

The Government announced a suicide prevention strategy and plan today entitled Every Life Matters, which has a focus on promoting wellbeing, responding to suicidal distress and supporting individuals, whānau and communities after a suicide.

The Suicide Prevention Office will initially be housed at the Ministry of Health, with the intention of becoming a stand-alone office providing central leadership and coordination of suicide prevention work.

The SMC gathered expert comments on the plan.

Dr Dougal Sutherland, clinical psychologist, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The Government’s Suicide Prevention Strategy and associated Prevention Plan released today is exciting and optimistic. If implemented fully it could bring about a significant sea-change in how we, as a society, understand, prevent, and respond to our country’s shocking suicide rates.

“It’s encouraging to see that the Every Life Matters framework places suicide prevention on a continuum. Up till now efforts have largely been focused on one end of this continuum: intervening in crises and postvention after a death. The new framework acknowledges that if we are to be successful in reducing deaths by suicide in New Zealand we need to start early. Promoting and enhancing wellbeing and resilience in our tamariki, rangatahi, and whānau are not ‘nice-to-haves’. They are crucial if we are to achieve our long-term goal of preventing people getting to a place where they consider suicide as an option.

“The plan for establishment of a Suicide Prevention Office acknowledges the need for cross-government coordination and support. At present our system silos suicide prevention into the domain of mental health. Yet many of the factors contributing to suicide are much broader: poverty, family violence, a history of abuse and neglect. These are not problems that can be resolved solely by the mental health system. They require input from education, social development, justice, housing etc. The Government has recognised this in their framework for development of a suicide prevention system.

“The Government’s Suicide Prevention Plan explicitly recognises the vital importance of having a workforce whose understanding of suicide prevention is clinically and culturally sound and is based on a trauma-informed approach. Suicide doesn’t happen in a vacuum and is often the end result of a lifetime of difficult or traumatic life experiences. However, current approaches to dealing with suicide largely overlook these historical factors and focus on immediate triggers. To intervene effectively we need a workforce and a wider system that understands how suicide arises and offers more than a knee-jerk immediate response.

“People who have experienced high levels of emotional distress and suicide attempts might feel encouraged by the plans set out in Every Life Matters to reform how the health system responds in these situations. Currently mental health crisis services are minimally staffed, often hospital-based, and experienced by many as non-responsive and unsupportive. The Government’s plan seems to acknowledge these faults and calls for new peer-led, community-based supports for those who have experienced suicidal distress. Such new services have the potential to take people’s distress seriously and recognise that it’s not OK to simply discharge someone home at 2am after they’ve tried to hurt themselves.

Every Life Matters acknowledges the need to include those most affected by our suicide rates including Māori and those who have lived experience of high levels of distress. Our efforts to tackle this area have, to date, been largely ineffective for Māori and have side-lined the involvement of those who have most to gain from reforming the system. We need to be prepared to listen to the wisdom of people who aren’t currently within the health system. Make no mistake – this will inevitably involve a significant shake-up of current ways of doing things and that can be uncomfortable for those involved in training the workforce and funding and delivering mental health services. The Government’s new strategy indicates that it is ready to listen and take account of new voices which is vital as if we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we’ve always got.

“The Every Life Matters framework acknowledges there is a need to develop the mental health workforce. This is a recurring theme since the release of the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry and an increasingly pressing concern. It’s also an area in which we need to see immediate action as workforce change will take years to fully implement. Developing a skilled, representative, and responsive workforce is the cornerstone in the construction of the Government’s response to the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry and in prevention of suicide. Without this cornerstone in place, even the best strategies and plans cannot come to fruition.”

No conflict of interest.