New Zealand's suicide rate drops to three-year low

New Zealand's Chief Coroner has revealed the country's provisional suicide rate is at its lowest in three years.

Judge Deborah Marshall released the figures for the year to June 30 on Friday, which show 654 people died by suicide -  471 male, 183 female - compared to 685 the year before.

The decrease in deaths by 31 meant the suicide rate dropped from 13.93 deaths per 100,000 to 13.01.

Marshall says while it is encouraging to see the number of suicides drop, there are still a lot of people who have lost their lives.

"It's important to remember that there are still more than 650 families who have lost someone in tragic circumstances," she said.

"My sincere condolences to the families and friends of those who died by suspected suicide in the past year."

The Mental Health Foundation's chief executive Shaun Robinson agreed.

"While no suicide number can ever be celebrated, there is some solace today that the effectiveness of steps taken to prevent suicide over the last few years seem to be reflected in today's news that both our suicide rate and number have dropped slightly," he said. 

"This is a reminder that efforts to prevent suicide do make a meaningful difference. There is, however, still a very long way to go."

Over the last 10 years, the suicide rate has increased. In the year between 2007-8, 540 Kiwis died from suicide, with the rate at 12.2. 7543 people have died from suicide since that year.

The report also found a decrease in the number of young people dying by suspected suicide. In the 15-19 age range, 59 people died compared to 73 from last year and in the  20-24 age range, deaths by suicide were down from 91 to 60.

The rates decreased for people of Māori (from 21.78 to 20.24), Pacific Island (8.91 to 7.07) and European heritage (13.02 to 12.08).

However, the Asian rate went up from 5.09 to 7.91 - an increase of 20 deaths.

The Mental Health Foundation commended Māori and Pasifika organisations, communities, whānau and individuals who have worked hard to prevent suicide.

"The beginnings of the success of these efforts is reflected in today’s data, which shows a decrease in suicides for Māori and Pasifika," Robinson said. "We hope to see this continue."

He said he hopes official efforts are made immediately to connect and support the Asian community, whose rate increased.

Of the DHB regions, Canterbury recorded the highest number of deaths at 90, followed by Taranaki with 64, then Auckland at 58. The West Coast recorded the lowest number with three.

Marshall also mentioned the concern about the rate due to the COVID-19 pandemic which has significantly impacted Kiwis. The data from Friday covered New Zealand's first wave of COVID-19 and the March lockdown.

"Throughout this year there has been unhelpful and irresponsible public commentary on the effect COVID-19 would have on the suicide rate," Marshall said.

"During the first lockdown period, I said it was unhelpful to release figures for such a short time frame, as it is nearly impossible to draw sound conclusions, nor do I believe such public discourse is helpful to people in distress."

Robinson agreed the rumours and speculation was "unhelpful and counterproductive to suicide prevention".

The Mental Health Foundation says resources are now needed to prevent the rate rising while the country recovers from COVID-19.

Director of the Suicide Prevention Office Carla na Nagara said she hopes Friday's numbers end the rumours on social media.

"This is distressing for families and communities, can be triggering for vulnerable people and further stretches the people who are working hard to provide support.  We need to make sure that we are dealing with only the facts and remember that the Chief Coroner is the sole authority on real-time data for suspected suicides."

She says Kiwis should focus on prevention where "every single one of us has a role to play".

“We all need to take practical, proactive steps to look after our mental wellbeing - practising helpful techniques and accessing support when we need it," she said.  

“Each of us has the ability to reach out to someone who might not be coping. The simple act of asking someone if they are ok can be enough to connect with them and provide hope."

Labour Minister David Parker and National MP Simon Bridges spoke to The AM Show on Friday about why they thought the suicide rate had dropped.

"In the 2019 Budget we decided to put a whole lot of money into mental health services. We've got a Prime Minister who preaches kindness and displays it," Parker said.

"And I think just recently, people have come together in the face of adversity through COVID and have been kinder to each other. All of these things help."

Bridges said the statistics were "encouraging" but there are still too many deaths.

"I think ultimately... if you compare it to our road fatalities, it's double. I don't know what the exact reason is. I don't think we can claim victory yet... We treat physical health really seriously, we put the resources behind it - we need to do likewise when it comes to mental health. We're all affected by this, I don't think there's politics in it." 

He said more needs to be done in getting the programmes the Government announced working.

"There's no doubt they've announced the spend. What people on the ground tell me locally in Tauranga is that those programmes haven't started yet, the money's not going through to the workers."

Where to find help and support: 

Shine (domestic violence) - 0508 744 633

Women's Refuge - 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)

Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737

What's Up - 0800 WHATS UP (0800 942 8787)

Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email or online chat

Samaritans - 0800 726 666

Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757

Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Shakti Community Council - 0800 742 584