Suicide expert quits country `in despair'

BY REBECCA TODD
Last updated 05:00 12/08/2010

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An international expert on suicide prevention left New Zealand "in despair" over lack of Government funding, a colleague says.

Professor David Fergusson, of Otago University, said the Canterbury Suicide Project, established in 1991, ended when Annette Beautrais returned to work at Yale in the United States 18 months ago "in despair".

"The whole area of suicide research in Canterbury has ceased largely because her work was not supported or recognised by the Ministry of Health," he said. "She became extremely disillusioned."

Fergusson said Beautrais was a huge loss as she knew more about suicide than anyone in the country, but "personal conflicts" meant she was continually denied ministry funding for any projects.

She had applied for funding to run a research project in Christchurch Hospital's emergency department on best-practice management of patients who had attempted suicide, but this was denied.

Beautrais helped write an application for Canterbury to have a Government-funded suicide-prevention co-ordinator, but this was denied, and the district health board had to fund one itself. This was despite Canterbury having the second-highest suicide numbers in the country.

"Canterbury did have an opportunity to develop a good suicide-prevention strategy, but the opportunities to do that have been substantially eroded," Fergusson said.

Preventing suicide was "not rocket science". Effective strategies included training primary-care providers to better identify and treat depression and restricting access to methods of suicide, such as gun control and putting up barriers at popular jumping sites. The Government had made "limited attempts" to implement them.

Fergusson said he and Beautrais were the principal authors of New Zealand's Suicide Prevention Strategy 2006-16.

Associate Minister of Health Peter Dunne said he was unaware of the specifics of the case. "I would be concerned if the consequence was that the people of Canterbury in particular were left more exposed."

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- The Press

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