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New Zealanders May Soon Find it Harder To Talk About Suicide

The planned merger of emergency and non-urgent telephone hotlines may see people at high-risk of suicide face more barriers to finding help, and cut jobs in the process.
06 May 2015, 5:30am

New Zealanders who are at high-risk of suicide may face more hurdles getting help as several of the county's health hotlines move towards amalgamation. The New Zealand government is currently in the process of unifying telephone helplines for people with depression, gambling, alcohol and drug addiction, smoking, poison advice, and immunisation advice by ushering in a National Telehealth Service. A one-stop-shop hotline, it's due to launch on the 1st of November.

Information about the changes are thin on the ground as the Ministry of Health will not comment while in the procurement phase, due to commercial sensitivity. However, the ministry's website outlined its aim to bring together the existing medley of organisations that together answer more than two million calls per year. The slated telehealth service—which will run 24 hours a day, seven days a week—will not be limited to phones, but also encompass other forms of support such as online chat and self guided e-therapy, adding that "virtual face-to-face consultations via video over the internet could be a development".

One leading service provider who looks to be on the chopping block due to the changes is Lifeline Aotearoa. Originally established in 1964 in Christchurch, Lifeline now covers the whole country to provide a round-the-clock telephone service for people suffering mental health issues and emotional distress. At the end of 2013, Lifeline reported a record high 128,775 calls answered that year. Its services include a suicide crisis hotline, and it is also the country's key provider of practical suicide intervention training.

The long-running helpline, which has more than 400 volunteers and receives more than 50 percent of its funding from government service contracts, discovered it was unsuccessful in securing a bid for the telehealth contract. As a result it is in real danger of losing a huge chunk of its paid staff as its current government contracts draw to a close to make way for the new scheme. While Lifeline has not spoken publicly about the unsuccessful bid, an email published in the media reveal it is scrabbling to connect with the current top runners in an effort to save jobs.

Perhaps more worrying is the effect the changes will have on the thousands of distressed callers who seek out the help of Lifeline. Some critics in the health industry have expressed concerns that combining life-or-death hotlines like the suicide and poisons call centres with less urgent services will only add more steps for people to navigate in order to get the right help — potentially costing lives.

In 2012 New Zealand's disturbing suicide rate among young people was revealed to be one of the worst in the world. A four-part series published by prestigious British medical journal The Lancet drew global attention to the nation's suicide epidemic, a distressing indicator of the strong undercurrent of mental illness and alcoholism among young New Zealanders.

From its analysis of data from 27 high-income countries, The Lancet found New Zealand to have the top rate of suicide among adolescent males and the third highest rate for adolescent females. On the basis that the brain is not fully mature until 24, the journal broadly categorised "adolescent" as people between the ages of 10 to 24.

Youth suicide statistics have been high in New Zealand for several decades, having peaked in the mid-1990s. In 1995, nearly 30 percent of suicides were committed by people aged 15 to 24 years, 78 percent of those were young men.

By 2011, the year the before The Lancet report, the number of youth suicides had fallen dramatically, dropping 32.8 percent. However, it was still the largest cause of death by external causes seen by New Zealand coroners with approximately 10 deaths every week from suicide, about a quarter of those are people under the age of 25. These figures do not take into account the thousands of attempted suicides each year.

According to SPINZ, a website run by the Mental Health Foundation, around 70 percent of people attempting to end their own lives have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Depression alone is scarily prevalent, with approximately one in seven young Kiwis experiencing a major depressive disorder before the age of 24.

Since the early 90s the government has worked diligently to steadily decrease the rate of suicide across the whole population. The latest initiative set in place is the Suicide Action Plan 2013-2016, with a core emphasis on community and family centred around the logic that they are the best people to know when things are going wrong. This family approach is particularly pertinent for Maori, whose suicide rates are 54 percent higher than for non-Maori. But at the heart of the solution is removing the stigma of talking about mental health, depression and suicide, the very reason why specialised services like Lifeline existed in the first place.

If you think you, or someone you know, may be thinking about suicide, call 0800 543 354 for support.

Follow Danielle on Twitter: @danielle_street

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