The New Zealand Suicide Prevention Strategy 2006-2016 - A Critique

Michael McCabe
Issue 19, August 2006

The anguish and despair following the suicide of someone we love can be overwhelming. Two questions that we ask over and over are WHY and WHAT could we have done to stop them. At a national level, knowing that we continue to have high rates of suicide for some age groups compared with other countries raises the same questions; WHY and, as a nation, WHAT can we do about it.

--The Honourable Jim Anderton, Associate Minister of Health

Approximately 500 New Zealanders die each year by suicide and five times as many as this figure are hospitalised after a suicide attempt. Suicide in New Zealand is a serious problem annually more New Zealanders die this way than on our roads.

Eighty percent of all suicides in New Zealand occur with people aged 25 and over, with the majority of these deaths in the 25-44 year age group. While the young are particularly vulnerable to suicide the impact of suicide is felt across all age groups in New Zealand including the elderly and socially isolated, those who live in the most deprived areas of the country, the unemployed and those suffering from depression. Young Māori men and women have a significantly higher rate of suicide and hospitalisation for suicide attempts than non-Māori. Although more females are hospitalised after attempting suicide more males actually die by suicide.

The emotional devastation caused by suicide is profound for families as well as for the wider community. Suicide also has a major economic effect on the community. It is estimated that the annual cost of suicidal behaviour in New Zealand is nearly 1.4 billion dollars.

In his foreword to The Ministry of Health's recently published The New Zealand Suicide Prevention Strategy 2006-2016, Associate Minister of Health, the Honourable Jim Anderton hoped that the release of this new strategy will mobilise renewed efforts to work together to prevent suicide and suicidal behaviour. He noted that suicide prevention is complex and many would admit there is no quick fix to this social problem in New Zealand which affects so many every year. Nevertheless, with sustained and coordinated action at many levels in society, and with a variety of approaches, it is possible to achieve significant results in suicide prevention.

The Suicide Prevention Strategy builds on an earlier national strategy aimed at lowering youth suicide [The New Zealand Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy 1998.] The rate of suicide has decreased for young males as a result of this earlier strategy and there are more services and community resources in place to help the young and the wider community understand suicidal behaviour and suicide prevention.

In this latest strategy the focus has now expanded to all age groups, acknowledging the fact that suicide has a significant impact in other age groups, most notably in elderly males who have a higher rate of suicide than younger males. The prevention strategy outlines a framework that shows how the various activities across a range of sectors in the community can come together to prevent suicide across all age groups. Underpinning this framework is a fundamental vision of a society where all people feel that they:

  • Are valued and nurtured
  • Value their own life
  • Are supported and strengthened if they experience difficulties
  • Do not want to take their lives or harm themselves.

The strategy aims to reduce the rate of suicide and suicidal behaviour and equally to reduce the harms and impacts that are associated with suicide on families/whanau, friends and the wider community.

The seven goals of the New Zealand Suicide Prevention Strategy are to:

  1. Promote mental health and wellbeing, and prevent mental health problems
  2. Improve the care of people who are experiencing mental disorders associated with suicidal behaviour
  3. Improve the care of people who make non-fatal suicide attempts
  4. Reduce access to the means of suicide
  5. Promote the safe reporting and portrayal of suicidal behaviour by the media
  6. Support families/whanau, friends and others affected by a suicide or suicide attempt
  7. Expand the evidence about rapes, causes and effective interventions

With some insight the strategy notes that while suicide is a serious health and social issue, and represents a significant loss to our society it is also an indicator of the social wellbeing of the population.

The importance of societal factors in suicide was recognised more than one hundred years ago by Sociologist Emile Durkheim in his 1897 book Suicide: A Study in Sociology. He was the first to discount non-sociological explanations of suicide. He sought to show that, what masked as a highly individual and personal statement, could be explained, in part, in terms of the degree of social integration within a particular society. He argued that suicide was an echo of the moral state of society and was in fact dependent on social causes and not on individual conditions even though the latter were a factor in suicide. For Durkheim, a high rate of suicide in a particular society or particular social group was in direct proportion to the lack of social cohesion in that society or that social group.

Examination of the World Health Organization's Map of Suicide Rates helps to illustrate this point. Countries with the highest rate of suicide include Australia, New Zealand, Russia, China, Eastern and Central Europe. Predominantly Catholic and Islamic countries have some of the lowest rates of suicide. Do these statistics reflect the more secular nature of our New Zealand society or are there other sociological factors beneath such disparity? Might a society that valued the transcendent have a better appreciation of the role of religion and faith in suicide prevention? The Suicide Prevention Strategy would be strengthened if there was wider recognition of the place of faith and spirituality and their role in helping to protect the vulnerable against suicide.

The strategy document does not address the issue of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia and claims that this subject raises separate ethical, legal and practical issues. While the issues appear to be separate they are very much linked to the wider issue of suicide in society, as Durkheim implied so many years ago. This is particularly so when one considers a topic such as 'the meaning of life' from the perspective of the elderly.

In recent years the increase in numbers of the elderly is reflected in the growth of retirement communities which provide a continuum of care that ranges from independent living to rest-home and finally to hospital care. While retirement homes can offer wonderful care, a greater sense of security and opportunities for community living, they can unwittingly leave the elderly feeling isolated with minimal influence in society. To the extent that this is perceived as being true, or is true in reality, then some elderly may well feel that their lives have lost meaning long before they lose their lives. This perception may well predispose the elderly to greater risk of suicide. Because their physical frailty may limit their ability to commit suicide, voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide offer a false form of security.

Given the very high rate of suicide in elderly males in New Zealand it is timely to recall the fact that the calls for voluntary euthanasia and physician assisted suicide reflect a high level of suicidal ideation in this group as well as in the chronically and terminally ill.


The Suicide Prevention Strategy depends on adequate mental health services for all ages and therefore highlights the need for a deeper understanding of the mental health requirements of the elderly. Further, because voluntary euthanasia and physician assisted suicide is part of the pattern of suicide in our society, it has to be recognised and addressed for what it is a method of committing suicide.

The strength of the Suicide Prevention Strategy document is in the way it openly addresses a major personal and profound social problem in New Zealand. The prevention strategy rightly states that there are no quick fixes to a problem of such depth. Nevertheless, in recognising the social causes of suicide, even implicitly, and in providing a strategy to help prevent the untimely and devastatingly tragic death of New Zealanders, it helps provide a way forward for all in the society. Durkheim described this path as social cohesion. It can also be described as the path to stronger communities.


Rev Michael McCabe, PhD
The Nathaniel Centre