Alexandra aims to tackle suicide rates

22:33, May 20 2014

Alexandra could be a template for the rest of the country as a town prepared to tackle "flat-lining" suicide rates, health professionals and suicide prevention advocates say.

More than 100 people attended a suicide prevention and community education meeting in Alexandra on Monday night, which had speakers from Otago University, Southern District Health Board, NZ Police, Life Matters Group and the Community Action on Suicide Prevention Education & Research group (Casper).

Professor Roger Mulder from the department of psychological medicine at the University of Otago in Christchurch said traditional suicide prevention models - treating suicide as a psychiatric problem - were failing and more community-based strategies could be the way to reduce suicide rates.

"Up until now, reducing suicide rates in New Zealand - anywhere in the world for that matter - have not been very successful. Rates have flatlined. We don't know what works; if we knew, we would be doing it. It is a really big problem and I think people need to be realistic about that."

Current suicide prevention models focused on categorising people as high or low risk, which should be abandoned, he said.

"There is a thought that most people who commit suicide belong to a weird little group of people who are crazy - but the majority are low-risk people. It is a real myth by focusing on high risk we will lower suicide rates. We aren't because most people don't come from that group. I think people don't understand that."

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Approaches to prevention had to be at a community level, which required community involvement and support, he said.

"We needs systemic strategies. A community-wide small-town suicide prevention programme and community mobilisation. If you can get cohesion back, you might be able to have an effect."

Communities needed to be more inclusive, and strategies could include providing support to families and "gatekeepers" - GPs, nurses, teachers; starting early intervention programmes at schools; creating youth hubs; and holding awareness campaigns.

Reducing alcohol was also a key to reducing suicide rates, he said.

"Suicide is a real tragedy and it's really hard to fix. If there was simple solution we would have found it ages ago. We have probably been going in the wrong angle for the last 40 years or so."

Casper trustee Jay Scanlon, of Christchurch, who lost his wife of 28 years to suicide six years ago, said his wife's death was outside all the "predictive boxes" and made no sense.

"Suicide is a very awkward subject . . . Prevention is assisted by getting out of the closest and equipping the public at large with a vocabulary to talk about it.

"I think the way to prevent suicide is not at a national and government level.

"I am very enthusiastic about what is happening in Central Otago - being successful here could provide a template we could take to other parts of New Zealand that are in desperate need of suicide prevention."

Likewise, Alexandra mum Julie Duffy, who lost her son to suicide 16 months ago and was instrumental in bringing the public meeting to the town, said prevention was about communities coming together and caring for one another.

"Every single one of us can contribute to suicide prevention."

The Southland Times