The role of social work in New Zealand’s suicide prevention

By Jamie Blundell

 The problem

Suicide is a growing international public health concern. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates 800,000 deaths per year are due to suicide globally (WHO, 2014 ), a rate which is still increasing. In New Zealand, there are approximately 500 suicide-related deaths per year (Ministry of Health, 2015). The youth suicide rate in New Zealand is one of the highest among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, which is the second leading cause of death among young people in New Zealand today (Ministry of Health, 2015).

Māori have been at least 1.2 times more likely to commit suicide compared with non-Māori from 2003 to 2012 (Ministry of Health, 2015). Sadly, this is a trend reflected in other recently colonised indigenous communities such as Canada, the United States and Australia (Hatcher, Crawford, and Coupe, 2016). Suicide among indigenous communities is a global problem linked to “…historical losses, including loss of power, autonomy, and disruption to memory and cultural practices, which reverberate to the present day in contemporary social suffering and associated social inequities” (Hatcher et al. p. 21-22).

The role of social work

In a recently published international review, it was noted that the contribution of social work to suicide literature has been relatively absent (Maple, Pearce, Sanford, and Cerel, 2016). This comes despite the frequent encounters between social workers and individuals at risk of suicide and bereaved families. Most suicidological research in social work tends to adopt an explanatory emphasis, with much less attention being given to suicide prevention or the effectiveness of intervention programs. There is also a significant neglect of focus on indigenous populations, post-intervention knowledge and the stigma associated with suicide (ibid). One way of increasing social workers’ knowledge and confidence in working with suicidal clients is through offering continuing education programs (Mirick, Bridger, McCauley, and Berkowitz, 2016).

In the New Zealand context from 2006-2016, there have been 104 peer-review articles published about self-injurious thoughts or behaviour and the funding for suicide-related research amounted to just over 12.5 million New Zealand dollars (Coppersmith, Nada-Raja, and Beautrais, 2017).

The Solution?

A Strategy to Prevent Suicide in New Zealand: Draft for public consultation was recently published by the Ministry of Health in April 2017. This attracted a lot of local media attention when mental health campaigner Mike King decided to resign from the NZ Suicide Prevention External Advisory Panel, the group responsible for shaping the suicide prevention strategy. In his resignation letter [4], he stated that the new Draft Proposal is just “Pandering to minority groups, continuing to fund failed experiments and further[ing] isolation for vulnerable New Zealanders” (The Spinoff, 2017). He went on to criticise the document’s Vision, Purpose, Pathways and Action Plan as being overly generalised, lacking concrete targets and only serving the interests of the policy makers responsible for its drafting.

Social workers are arguably amongst the best placed practitioners to contribute to the research and policy formation around suicide prevention. A social worker’s knowledge base takes into account both the micro and macro forces operating on an individual at risk of suicide, which makes them ideally placed both to implement intervention strategies and advocate on their effectiveness. Only then can meaningful change in New Zealand’s alarming suicide rates, particularly among the youth and Māori populations, begin to take shape.


Coppersmith, D. D., Nada-Raja, S., & Beautrais, A. L. (2017). An examination of suicide research and funding in New Zealand 2006–16: Implications for new research and policies. Australian Health Review.

Hatcher, S., Crawford, A., & Coupe, N. (2017). Preventing suicide in indigenous communities. Current Opinion in Psychiatry30(1), 21-25.

King, M. (2017, 15 May). ‘A masterclass in butt covering’: Mike King’s letter quitting suicide prevention panel. The Spinoff. Retrieved from:

Maple, M., Pearce, T., Sanford, R. L. & Cerel, J. (2016). The role of social work in suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention: A scoping review. Australian Social Work, 1-13.

Ministry of Health (2015). Suicide Facts: Deaths and intentional self-harm hospitalisations 2012. Retrieved from:

Ministry of Health (2017). A Strategy to Prevent Suicide in New Zealand: Draft for public consultation. Retrieved from:

Mirick, R. G., Bridger, J., McCauley, J. & Berkowitz, L. (2016). Continuing education on suicide assessment and crisis intervention for social workers and other mental health professionals: A follow-up study. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 36(4), 363-379.

World Health Organization (2014). Preventing suicide: A global imperative. Retrieved from:


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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