Suicide Prevention Office could close if proposed Ministry of Health job cuts go ahead - PSA

The Suicide Prevention Office at the Ministry of Health could close if a proposal to axe more than 100 jobs goes ahead, a union says.  

However, the Minister for Mental Health has since come out saying he was not told about the potential closure and his expectations are that the office "will remain open".

On Thursday it was revealed the Ministry of Health is proposing cutting 134 jobs to meet the Government's cost reduction demands. The National-led coalition government has asked all ministries to cut their spending by between 6.5 to 7.5 percent to reduce taxpayer spending.  

Ministry of Health staff will meet on Thursday and Friday to discuss the proposed job losses. But the Public Service Association Te Pūkenga Here Tikanga Mahi (PSA) is warning the cut could see the Suicide Prevention Office closed entirely along with other specialist roles.  

The Suicide Prevention Office was established in 2019 under recommendations of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction.  

PSA National Secretary Duane Leo said the current proposal would see the office close with the number of staff working on suicide prevention halved while others are dispersed across the Ministry. Leo said the proposal would also see the Director for the Office role axed as well as the Senior Advisor Māori. 

"The Government should be investing more in suicide prevention, so we stop more families from suffering the tragedy of suicide, not making these cold-hearted and dangerous cuts," Leo said.  

"This was an Office that was set up for a good reason, it developed the first national Suicide Prevention Action Plan and was working closely with communities experiencing high rates of suicide." 

Other specialist teams in the Clinical, Community and Mental Health Directorate have also been earmarked for possible downsizing.  

The Ministry is also proposing downgrading the drug-checking services function and the loss of people working in mental health and addictions. 

"This is core work in a functioning health system and the impact will be felt across the country. We should not be losing more specialist health workers in the Ministry of Health." 

Leo said the proposal makes "a mockery of the Government's new portfolio of Minister for Mental Health".  

"We call on Minister Matt Doocey to overturn these cuts which are simply being made to fund tax cuts that New Zealand cannot afford. 

"We know this is an anxious time for many dedicated health workers. Their work, including advising Ministers and supporting our health system overall is vital. How at this time of stress in the health system, does it make sense for the Government to drive such damaging cuts at the Ministry? 

"We have an ageing population and face the increasing cost of medical technology - all that requires a well-resourced Ministry to provide expert advice and support, so we make the best decisions for an effective health system." 

Leo added it is "another sad day for the public services New Zealanders rely on and for dedicated public service workers who want to make a difference for communities across the motu".  

"The Government has made a clear choice - it has the money to invest in a public service that meets the challenges we face today and tomorrow but would rather give $15 billion away in tax cuts." 

Ministry of Health Deputy Director-General of Clinical Community and Mental Health Robyn Shearer said the proposal comes from changes in "our priorities as an organisation, changes to improve efficiency, and changes to our organisational structure to make it more coherent and consistent".  

"These changes include proposals to change the organisation to support more integrated use of expertise across the range of work programmes we lead. We have also made these changes in order to meet our future budget, as a result of an end to time limited funding and to meet savings requirements."  

Shearer said the Ministry needs to deliver on the Government's priorities while staying within budget in a" more fiscally constrained environment".  

"The Suicide Prevention office has always been established as a team within the Ministry of Health with an option to review its tenure," Shearer said.  

"They have provided an important role working within the Directorate to establish the 10 year strategy and action plan which guides the work of the suicide prevention sector and all Government agencies who have a role in preventing suicide and promoting mental health and wellbeing.   

"With the changes required in resourcing and with the role of the Director of the Suicide Prevention Office currently vacant, it is proposed this role would be disestablished. The work of the team has changed since the funding and contracts for Suicide Prevention transitioned to Te Aka Whai Ora in 2022 and to Health New Zealand recently.  

"Two roles that supported the focus of the previous work priorities are also proposed to be dis-established. There remain two roles as Principals that will work as part of the broader team and ensure the Ministry is supported in its leadership role with suicide prevention expertise sitting within the clinical, lived experience and system intelligence group." 

Shearer said the Mental Health and Addiction team within the Ministry of Health will continue to lead the suicide prevention work.  

"Health New Zealand is responsible for funding suicide prevention programmes in health and many Government agencies continue efforts to support people who may need support to prevent suicide.   

"The Ministry of Health will continue to monitor progress on suicide prevention as it has done." 

However, Minister for Mental Health Matt Doocey said the PSA's statement was disappointing and "misleading".

"Mental health and suicide prevention is an absolute priority for this Government," Doocey said.

"The closure of the Suicide Prevention Office has not been raised with me and I have spoken with the Director-General of Health to make my expectations clear that the office will remain open and that the suicide prevention work programme will continue."

The latest data, released in October last year, show the number of people dying by suicide in New Zealand increased compared to the previous year with Māori continuing to be disproportionately negatively affected.  

The figures, for the financial year to June 30, 2023, showed 565 people died by suspected suicide and the rate was 10.6 people per 100,000. 

It's an increase on the 2022 year when 538 people died by suspected suicide and the rate was 10.2.    

Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon defended the imminent large-scale job cuts across the public sector, saying his Government wants more "medical doctors, not more spin doctors". 

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