Warning: This story contains discussion of suicide.
Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters is at odds with the Suicide Prevention Office and Chief Coroner over his prediction suicides will increase because of COVID-19.
Peters joined a webinar hosted by Business New Zealand on Monday where he discussed how the country could recover from COVID-19, emphasising how "we have to approach this issue with a great sense of balance".
"Sure, COVID-19 is potentially tragic, but then so is our suicide rate," the New Zealand First leader said. "In Australasia, I predict it will be up 50 percent, tragically, this year. So, that'll be in the hundreds - so you've got to see it in the big picture."
But Carla na Nagara, director of New Zealand's Suicide Prevention Office, said while the COVID-19 response may have significant, long term effects on people's lives, an increase in suicides "is not inevitable".
"No matter what the stress is - and I acknowledge there is significant pressure in many of our communities at this time - if our mental wellbeing is strong, we can cope better with problems and uncertainty in our lives.
"If we all act now and take practical, proactive steps to look after our mental wellbeing - practising helpful techniques and accessing support when we need it - we can avoid a spike in mental health distress in months to come. "
Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall confirmed to Newshub the suicide rate actually dropped during the alert level 4 lockdown, contradicting reports there had been an increase - but she did not provide the exact figures.
"It would be irresponsible to release provisional numbers for such a short period of time, or to associate these figures with the pandemic, as the numbers can rise and fall for many reasons."
She said the provisional trend suggests the suicide rate had actually dipped over the 33-day lockdown period from March 26 to April 28 compared to the 33 days prior to it from February 22 to March 25.
Suicide statistics are released by the Chief Coroner annually at the end of the financial year and Marshall said that allows for a more accurate comparison.
But she said there "have been concerning reports of a reported rise in suicide rates during alert level 4" and that "in the interests of addressing this, I can confirm based on the provisional numbers I have, this is incorrect".
Earlier this month, the Mental Health Foundation shut down "irresponsible" claims on social media that there were 61 suicides in one week because of the lockdown.
Judge Marshall said all suspected suicides reported during alert level 4 or later are in the process of being investigated and intent is therefore yet to be established.
There has been concern since the country went into lockdown in March that the economic and psychological impacts would result in a rise in mental health problems.
The latest Treasury figures show unemployment is expected to rise to 8.3 percent in June, before peaking at 9.8 percent in September and recovering thereafter.
The Government has invested in a range of apps to help Kiwis take care of their mental health during the crisis, with funding from $500 million allocated for health in the March COVID-19 relief package.
In the year to June 30, 2019, 685 people took their own lives - 17 more than the previous year.
The Suicide Prevention Office was set up by the Government in November 2019 and a strategy was unveiled to combat New Zealand's high rate of suicide, after an investment of almost $2 billion in mental health.
Where to find help and suport