Mental Health Minister Matt Doocey on backfoot after proposed Suicide Prevention Office closure

The Minister for Mental Health has made a concrete commitment to keep the Suicide Prevention Office open, following a backlash over its proposed closure.

Both sides of the house fumbled the news - Matt Doocey was caught completely off guard, while Labour had to recall a tone-deaf statement about it.

Doocey's office declined our interview request today - but Newshub Political Editor Jenna Lynch tracked him down for an explanation.

Mental health is Jazz Thornton's purpose. She's seen the dark side herself. After attempting suicide in her teens, she now spends her life fighting for change and sharing messages of hope to audiences the world over.

She's also worked closely with the Suicide Prevention Office and she knows its importance.

"Christopher Luxon, if you and your office shut down the Suicide Prevention Office, you are saying that every single person that is suicidal is worth less than your tax cuts," she said on AM this morning.

On Thursday, the Ministry of Health proposed an effective dismantling of the office which came as a total shock to the Mental Health Minister.

He declined our interview request today, but Newshub tracked him down at a rural health conference.

"How did you find me?" he asked.

Everyone there wanted answers too - is the Suicide Prevention Office going to be scrapped?

"I rung up Di Sarfati, the Director-General of Health and made it very clear my expectation of that Suicide Prevention Office remains open and that's what I'm committed to doing," Doocey said.

"Let's be very clear - the Suicide Prevention Office will remain open."

Mental Health Minister Matt Doocey.
Mental Health Minister Matt Doocey. Photo credit: Newshub

The proposal - obtained by Newshub - shows the office currently has eight roles. The Director and the executive assistant role are currently vacant and proposed to be disestablished. Two other full-time roles are set to expire while two more are proposed to be disestablished - leaving just two which are to be embedded within a wider team.

"Well that proposal was news to me," Doocey told Newshub.

"It's there in black and white, these are savings that have to be made because the Government needs to reach its targets to make $15 billion worth of tax cuts," said Public Service Association national secretary Duane Leo.

"We are not going to close the Suicide Prevention Office. I've made it very clear that it's to remain open," Doocey added.

Asked if he was comfortable with the drop in resources dedicated to suicide prevention, he reverted to his line.

"My expectation is the Suicide Prevention Office remains open," he told Lynch.

But he said he "hadn't seen that proposal" to slash roles from the office.

Labour's mental health spokesperson Ingrid Leary said it's "chaotic at the Beehive".

"The sad fact for New Zealanders is they're starting to see how callous these cuts are," she told Newshub.

Labour had its own PR crisis today - sending out an attack email titled 'Government in mental health breakdown'.

Two minutes later it recalled the email. Leary didn't want to talk about it, and when questioned if she would take any responsibility for getting that wrong, had this to say: "I don't think that's the issue here."

Almost immediately after our interview Labour sent an explanation saying it was referencing a communications breakdown but they realised how it may be taken and hoped it didn't cause offence.

Jenna Lynch Analysis

A little bit of nuance here - so the office isn't a physical office, it's a specialised team working within that wider mental health group at the ministry.

Now, on top of the cuts mentioned, I've had a dig into the proposal and there are another six jobs proposed to go from within that wider mental health team.

So the question about the resource is the key one still - is the minister comfortable having only two people dedicated to suicide prevention work and a whittled-down wider team.

The Government made this bed for itself - in Opposition, it promised a line-by-line review of Government spending, then when it took the reins the Government decided to leave it up to the CEOs.

There certainly seems to be some feeling from some in Government that the public service bosses aren't going for the top-end salary cuts or the management-level disestablishments that the Government might point to to cut.

A cynical interpretation might be that CEOs are possibly picking some programmes to cause a bit of a stir about what's at stake with the cuts.

But if the Government isn't willing to do the work itself, it cannot complain when something like the closure of the Suicide Prevention Office is proposed. These are the consequences of their choices.

Where to find help and support: 

  • 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