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Key pledges action on youth suicide

Last updated 05:00 27/08/2011

ANTONIO BRADLEY AND BELINDA MCCAMMON

The Government has made an election promise to launch a full review into policies to reduce youth suicide as it faces criticism for not making mental health a high enough priority.

National suicide statistics were published yesterday by Chief Coroner Neil MacLean after his inaugural release of annual statistics in August last year.

Judge MacLean said he was worried that the country's suicide rate was not going down and was "staying stubbornly the same". The figures show young men and Maori are most likely to commit suicide and that almost 60 per cent of all those who did in the year ending June 2011 had a "known mental health history".

The number of people taking their own lives has remained steady since 2007 at about 540 deaths per year. By comparison, 375 people died on New Zealand's roads last year.

Mr Key said yesterday the suicide rate was "very worrying" and promised, if re-elected, to have his office lead a full review of policies to reduce youth suicide.

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But Otago University Professor Sunny Collings, who directs the university's Social Psychiatry and Population Mental Health Research Unit in Wellington, said the Government needed to prioritise accessible mental health services if it was serious about suicide.

"If we don't keep it high on the health agenda then we're missing an opportunity to make an important difference to suicide rates.

"Every suicide is a tragedy and a suicide is not an ordinary death. They leave a very horrible and complicated aftermath where people feel guilty."

Dr Collings believed the statistics underestimated the contribution of mental illness to suicide because academic studies had shown that in up to 90 per cent of cases the person had a mental illness at the time, or very close to the time, of death.

The Government had chosen not to put mental health at the forefront, she said. "Previous governments were prompted to do it because of very highly publicised catastrophes such as incidents where people who are severely mentally ill do terrible things ... we don't want more of these things happening."

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements said Judge MacLean's report was a "call to action" which would help keep suicide in the public mind.

"We see suicide as not just a mental health issue. It's about education, it's about getting people talking. It's about what happens at work, what happens at home and what happens in our communities.

"Even though over time we've had the erosion of stigma and discrimination around mental health, it still has some distance to go."

Mr Key said the Government was deeply concerned by both the overall suicide rate and the youth suicide rate. "We have the highest per capita youth suicide rate in the developed world for girls and third highest for boys, and that is very worrying."

It was hard to know what policies were letting young people down. "I wonder whether they're getting the help they need soon enough.

"A lot of young people go through suicidal tendencies, only a relatively small group physically go on to actively take their own lives. But it's making sure we reach out very quickly."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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