Suicide rate shows slight drop after record-high year

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Warning: This story deals with the topic of suicide.

Mental health experts see a small silver lining after New Zealand suicide deaths hit their lowest point in three years.

Figures released by Chief Coroner Deborah Marshall showed 654 people died from suicide in the year to June 2020, a drop of 31 deaths from the 2019 total of 685, which was the highest number ever recorded since records began.

The suicide rate in New Zealand is now 13.01 deaths per 100,000 people, down from 13.93.

“While it is encouraging to see the suspected suicide rate and number drop for the past year, it’s important to remember that there are still more than 650 families who have lost someone in tragic circumstances,” Marshall said.

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“My sincere condolences to the families and friends of those who died by suspected suicide in the past year.”

In 2019, New Zealand had a record-high number of suicides. (File photo)
In 2019, New Zealand had a record-high number of suicides. (File photo)

The figures show a notable decrease in youth suicides. Deaths among those in the 15-19 age range were down from 73 to 59, and in the 20-24 age range were down from 91 to 60.

The figures showed a decrease in the suicide rate among Māori, Pacific Island, and European people, however, the Asian rate went up from 5.09 to 7.91 per 100,000 – an increase of 20 deaths.

Some solace in numbers

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said the numbers were tragic but there was some solace in improvement.

“While no suicide number can ever be celebrated, there is some solace today that the effectiveness of steps taken to prevent suicide over the last few years seem to be reflected in today’s news,” he said.

“This is a reminder that efforts to prevent suicide do make a meaningful difference. There is, however, still a very long way to go.”

The Foundation particularly commended the efforts of Māori and Pasifika organisations to support their people and prevent suicide.

“The beginnings of the success of these efforts is reflected in today’s data, which shows a decrease in suicides for Māori and Pasifika,” Robinson said. “We hope to see this continue.”

Historical data had shown a drop in suicide numbers was generally to be expected during disaster periods, Robinson said.

“Disasters like pandemics are times when communities come together to work with shared purpose on supporting each other and getting through. Feeling valued, included and part of something bigger than you is great for wellbeing and hugely protective against suicide. We are seeing the proof of this every day at the moment,” he said.

Speculation causes ‘significant harm’

Marshall was forced to release some provisional figures in May, after reports that the suicide rate had increased during the Covid-19 lockdown.

"I can confirm based on the provisional numbers I have, this is incorrect," she said in May.

"The provisional trend suggests the suicide rate was lower during the Alert Level 4 period than the 33 days prior to it (February 22 – March 25, 2020).

Chief coroner judge Deborah Marshall released this year’s suicide statistics today, showing a slight drop.
Chief coroner judge Deborah Marshall released this year’s suicide statistics today, showing a slight drop.

"The suicide rate during alert level 4 was also lower than the rate for the same period from 2008 to 2020."

Suicide Prevention Office Director Carla na Nagara expressed frustration at the speculation over suicide statics, which she said could cause significant harm.

“This is distressing for families and communities, can be triggering for vulnerable people and further stretches the people who are working hard to provide support,” she said.

“Focussing on suicide numbers will not help us to prevent suicide in New Zealand, and speculating about them can have the opposite effect.

“We need to look behind the numbers to understand what is contributing to our suicide rate, and to the different rates within different population groups. We then need to address those issues. Until we do that as a country, there will not be any enduring impact on what is a shamefully high suicide rate in New Zealand.”

The suicide rate rumours during lockdown stemmed from a tweet that claimed an unnamed police officer informed the account holder of a massive increase in suicides across the country. The tweet and account were later deleted.

Where to get help

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email or online chat

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

What's Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.

Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7. – or email or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825