Suicide: Only one reason why; and we’re failing to respond

By Ellie

Suicide has appeared in mainstream media more frequently in the past three months than in the past three years, or at least it feels that way.  Netflix recently premiered their series 13 Reasons Why, sparking both controversy and praise of its depiction of suicide and the wider impact on families and communities.

New Zealand media personalities Jono Pryor and Bryce Casey recently expressed their grief following the suicide of a friend. And, mental health advocate Mike King appeared on morning television, speaking to his resignation from the governmental panel, in the wake of their “deeply flawed” suicide prevention plan.

These incidents have raised public awareness of suicide. However, they merely scratch the surface of what is in reality, a much deeper issue.

New Zealand’s rates of suicide are amongst the highest in the world. 503 people died in 2013, and 567 people in 2016 (Statistics NZ, 2013; Hutching, 2017). These figures exceed annual road deaths. Yet, while substantial taxpayer dollars are funnelled into road safety campaigns, suicide prevention efforts struggle to exist.

Annual health expenditure recently rose to $19 billion, yet only $25 million (over four years) was spent on suicide prevention. That’s $6 million a year, but only 0.03% of total government spending.

Is there any better way to expose where they are putting their priorities?

Whilst lack of financial support is evidently part of the issue, there is a greater problem still. We neither comprehend nor understand the increasing prevalence of suicide. Or we choose not to. The numbers keep rising, and we don’t know how to respond.

Mike King expresses concern that we are over-complicating a simple issue. People are hurting, and need our help. And, I believe social work has a crucial role to play. Social workers engage across a range of settings, and can be perfectly positioned  to intervene and offer support those experiencing suicidal thoughts or tendencies.

Unfortunately, Feldman & Freedenthal (2006) discovered an alarming lack  of suicide education in social work training programs. Minimal prevention and intervention techniques were found, and many professionals felt ill equipped to work with suicidal people.

If this same study were to be conducted in New Zealand, I would expect similar results. Current guidelines within our mental health services, ironically, conclude with referral the service. Whilst this is a helpful starting point, it is far from the final stage.

Social workers need client-foccused and practical education on suicide. Theoretical teaching gives understanding; but pragmatic knowledge encourages tangible responses to individuals, groups and communities affected.

Effective mental health services have a direct correlation with reducing suicide. Ineffective services though, are equally linked to harm.

New Zealand needs to commit resources where they are most effective, and work collaboratively toward positive outcomes with service stakeholders ( see for example Mark Henrickson, Shirley Jülich and Ksenija Napan’s blog on mental health ‘investment’ on RSW

Finally, social work support needs to be provided at all levels of need, not restricted to the so-called urgent cases. If someone even hints at needing help, we must not turn them away for failing to meet a threshold.

Social work principles of social justice and equality must be drawn on, to advocate for better funding, training, education, and overall recognition of a problem that will only fester and grow, if swept under the rug.


Bracewell-Worrall, A. (2017, May 15). Mike King quits Government suicide panel. Newshub. Retrieved from

Feldman, B. N., & Freedenthal, S. (2006). Social work education in suicide intervention and prevention: An unmet need? Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior36(4), 467-480. doi:10.1521/suli.2006.36.4.467

Hutching, M. (2017, May 16). Real suicides figure is double what is reported. Newshub. Retrieved from

Manuel, J., Crowe, M., Inder, M., & Henaghan, M. (2017). Suicide prevention in mental health services: A qualitative analysis of coroners’ reports. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing. doi:10.1111/inm.12349

McConnell, G. (2016, October 16). The highest rate of teen suicide in the developed world. Retrieved from

Ministry of Health. (2012). Health expenditure trends in New Zealand 2000-2010. Wellington, N.Z: Author.

Ministry of Health. (2013). Suicide facts: Deaths and intentional self-harm hospitalisations 2013. Retrieved from

Ministry of Social Development. (2016). The social report 2016 – Te pūrongo oranga tangata. Retrieved from

Outpouring of support for Jono Pryor following friend’s suicide | Newshub. (2017, March 13). Retrieved from

Re-Imagining Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand. (2015, June 8). Social experiments not the solution for mental health care. Retrieved May 29, 2017, from

Scheerder, G., Reynders, A., Andriessen, K., & Van Audenhove, C. (2010). Suicide intervention skills and related factors in community and health professionals. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior40(2), 115-124. doi:10.1521/suli.2010.40.2.115


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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