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Laila Harre Speech To SPINZ

August 6 2002
Hon Laila Harre
Minister of Youth Affairs
Speech Notes
Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand Inaugural Youth Suicide Research Symposium
Illot Theatre
Wellington Convention Centre

Good morning, and welcome to the first symposium of this kind in New Zealand.

It’s great to be here with so many of the people who have made a big impression on me during my time as Minister of Youth Affairs, and a big supporter of SPINZ.

In fact, I owe many of you a debt of gratitude for the advice and support you gave towards the Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa; a framework I hope will lead to more integrated initiatives like this within our communities.

SPINZ was established in a way that can model the youth development and resiliency-building approaches at the heart of the YDSA, which we launched in February this year. It was intended to collect and disseminate research and information to communities, and to individuals.

The Government in which I have served renewed the commitment to the full implementation of the New Zealand Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy, the former government's blueprint for reducing the unacceptably high rate of youth suicide in this country.

The New Zealand Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy was launched in March 1998 in response to suicide data that showed the New Zealand youth suicide rate to be the highest in comparable OECD countries. There has been, and continues to be, significant community concern about youth suicide. Strikingly, to me, youth concern about this issue has remained high and often poorly managed. One of the issues I have struggled with has been the desire of many to promote public discussion of this issue, and the advice of experts that doing so presents risks. I have not resolved this dilemma to my own satisfaction.

However, I have observed an often completely unjustified “fear of suicide” among groups of young people, and I have wondered whether the focus on relatively high rates does promote a perception that far more young people are at risk than is the case, which in itself adds an additional layer of risk. In the end the dilemma is how to harness public concern without feeding private anxiety.

I have felt it important to continually remind young people that suicide remains a rare event and that there are patterns which can be observed and responded to. This, of course, has been a key task of SPINZ.

The Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy aims to enhance protective factors and reduce risk factors, suicide and suicidal behaviour through a multi-level, inter-sectoral approach.

It has two parts: In Our Hands, which has a total population focus; and Kia Piki te Ora o te Taitamariki, which focuses on rangatahi Mäori, and is highly respected internationally.

In 1999 SPINZ launched its community information kit as a pilot in six Northland communities at a cost of $109,000.

The programme’s funding was increased almost fourfold in last years budget, enabling SPINZ to take its initiative further afield.

While this was going on, leadership of the Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy was also transferred from the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of Youth Affairs. Debbie Edwards was appointed as our first full-time national co-ordinator, a move that has enabled us to build up some momentum around meeting the aims of the national strategy.

Like those of you here today involved in researching the many different elements of youth suicide prevention, the approach Youth Affairs seeks to take is evidence based. That means we’ve put money into the programmes most likely to meet the aims of the YSPS.

SPINZ continues to meet that requirement.

It was established to address Goal Five of In Our Hands: “To improve information about the rates and causes of suicidal behaviour in young people to inform effective prevention efforts”.

It’s a national service that collects and disseminates information about youth suicide and youth suicide prevention to support and inform suicide prevention activities, and does this via a number of channels, including responses to requests for information, a website, community workshops, co-ordination of networks and linkages, and distribution of resources and newsletters.

Its community-based approach reflect the fact that youth suicide, and the circumstances that lead to a young person experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, are complex and often complicated issues. As such, improving outcomes will also be a complex process.

The approach needs to be multi-faceted – we must give people the tools to deal with a crisis situation, while at the same time we need to improve long-term outcomes by empowering communities, not scaring them.

This symposium is another way for SPINZ to do this.

So why is ongoing research important to the implementation of the YSPS?

The New Zealand Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy is evidence-based, and maintaining an evidence-based approach continues to be a priority, because no matter how well-intentioned they may be, when suicide prevention programmes there is always a potential to do harm.

There is a sizeable body of research that informs us about risk factors associated with youth suicide, but limited research about protective factors, cultural issues and the effectiveness of policy or interventions. Similarly, the reasons for New Zealand’s relatively high youth suicide rate remain unclear.

A significant amount of high quality research has been undertaken in New Zealand. New Zealand researchers, and their work, are highly regarded internationally, and by local policymakers, service providers and communities, and it’s great to see many of you here today.

Evidence in this area is often complex, ambiguous or contradictory, so its application can be particularly challenging.

Collaboration between researchers and policymakers, service providers and communities is vital. This is a two-way process, with researchers sharing their findings and recommendations, and those who apply the research, working with researchers to develop further projects in order to plug gaps in services.

When I launched the SPINZ community information kit two years ago, I prefaced my praise for the Northland pilot with the hope that it was just a starting point, and not just another excellent pilot that is falls through the funding gaps because it's not strictly a health initiative and not strictly a social service initiative.

It hasn’t, and I’m proud of that.

The SPINZ approach goes further than isolating and informing about risk factors.

It also links with the key goals of the YDSA – to connect young people to their communities through empowered participation. This is at the heart of a youth development approach to suicide prevention.

With this perspective we are able to lower the anxiety and focus on the reality of youth suicide. It is an extreme outcome that affects a small number of young people, young people who are in serious crisis. Often they are grappling unsuccessfully with mental health problems, have serious issues with drugs and alcohol and unemployment.

One way of easing unnecessary anxiety is through good education, and that's an important part of what SPINZ does, and a hoped-for outcome of this symposium.

With the luxury of my imminent departure from this role I want to issue challenge to the many wonderful, often personally wounded through experience with suicide, and always well intentioned people who champion youth suicide prevention.

Please, work with the researchers, and direct your resources and your energy towards activities and services that the evidence tells us will have the greatest impact. We owe that much to young people in crisis. Sometimes our gut instincts about what will work are right. But all to often they don’t stand up to scrutiny. This is not uncharted territory. There is much we can do, and directing our collective resources towards effective approaches and high quality services will save lives.

It was clear to me when I came into this job that despite the Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy we were still a long way from a consensus between policy makers, researchers, activists, and professionals on immediate priorities and even long-term approaches. I believe that much more effective collaboration in the last two years has resulted in more cohesion and better conditions for a consensus to emerge.

This symposium will be another important place for that to happen in. It is my pleasure to open it and to wish you all well in your continued work with and for young people in Aotearoa.

Thank you.

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