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Peter Dunne Speech: NZ Suicide Prevention Information Conf.

Hon Peter Dunne Associate Minister of Health

Speech: Opening Address to New Zealand Suicide Prevention Information National Conference

Manukau City, Auckland Wednesday 7 September 2011 'How do we talk about suicide?'

Good morning. I am pleased to be here with you today to open this year's Suicide Prevention Information New Zealand (SPINZ) Conference.

I would like to thank SPINZ, the Mental Health Foundation and Te Rau Matatini for jointly organising and promoting the conference.

I would also like to acknowledge and thank the speakers and attendees here today.

Looking around the audience I can see a fantastic turnout.

Judi tells me that there are around 400 attendees and I understand there is diverse representation - from families affected by suicide and community groups to DHBs, clinicians, NGOs and the police.

Such a response to this event is gratifying to see because to really make strides in reducing our rates of suicide, the involvement of the whole community is essential.

I would particularly like to extend a warm welcome to Stephanie Bell from Australia, and, Normand D'Aragon from Canada, who are presenting at today's conference.

I am sure you both will bring valuable insights to today's discussions, and I welcome your attendance.

Generally, on issues as complex as suicide, we want to tap into the latest and best thinking internationally, as well as drawing upon our resources and context.

I think the opportunity to have perspectives from other countries and cultures will greatly enhance our ability to improve suicide prevention because we know that suicide touches people of all walks and stages of life.

I expect that the viewpoint and experience of indigenous cultures that you will bring today will resonate with us here in New Zealand.

Understanding what preventative measures work best for different populations is increasingly important in our changing and increasingly multicultural society.

This is a pervasive theme the world over.

It is encouraging to see this acknowledged as we look ahead to World Suicide Prevention Day on Saturday.

We are here today to discuss 'How do we talk about suicide?'

That is a good question, and, one worth reflecting on.

There is a myth that we are not meant to talk about suicide; that it is too sensitive, painful or difficult, or that any discussion runs the risk of glorification or copy-cat actions.

For too long, we have decided that the safest option is the quiet option - best not to talk about, lest we cause more problems than we might resolve.

But well-intentioned silence has not worked.

Our suicide rates are still far too high, and worse, our collective silence has created an environment where most people are genuinely shocked to discover that more people die by suicide each year, than are killed on the roads.

So it is time to draw back the veil, and to make it clear it is ok to talk about suicide.

The real issue is not whether we talk about suicide but how we talk about it.

One of the key ways that suicide is talked about publicly is through the media.

The way suicide is reported has the potential to be both helpful and harmful.

Getting that balance right is important and can be difficult to achieve.

In New Zealand, the Coroner's Act plays an important role in determining what information can be published about a suicide.

For example, the Act does not prevent the media from talking about general issues relating to suicide, including suicide policy, statistics, or information about getting help.

In fact, media coverage can help by providing information about warning signs, and letting people know where they can go to seek help if they are concerned about themselves or someone else close to them.

The Coroners Act places restrictions on media reporting of individual suicides.

There are good reasons for having legislation to ensure careful and deliberate consideration before information about individual suicides is made available.

First among those reasons is because the price paid if we get it wrong can be so high.

Potentially, more people can die.

There are real risks associated with reporting suicides, particularly, for instance, youth suicides, with young people having vulnerabilities that the adult community needs to be aware of and tuned into.

Research evidence tells us that inappropriate reporting of youth suicides may contribute to copycat behaviour.

This is particularly important in New Zealand where our youth suicide rate is high by international standards, and particularly so for young Maori.

The Chief Coroner, Judge Neil McLean, has recently commented that a careful and measured opening up of reporting on suicide could be a positive thing.

Over recent months, I have convened roundtable session with some of the country's leading media executives and medical and mental health representatives and clinicians to look at developing a set of media guidelines for reporting on suicide.

These meetings determined that there would be value in developing a resource that all media could use to ensure some consistency of approach.

This has been a step forward and I am keen to see continued effort across media to encourage greater consistency in how they report the serious issue of suicide.

Having guidelines in place, with goodwill from media, and advice from the health sector, can only be a positive step forward.

This important work is continuing and I expect that by the end of this year there will be a resource in place that is supported by the media organisations, and for those who have their concerns, I would say this: without media buy-in we are back at square one.

We are also conscious of the role that new technologies including social media and networking sites can play in helping or hindering efforts to reduce suicide.

There is a tendency to focus on the potential for negative consequences from social networking sites.

For example, there are concerns that memorial sites can increase the risk of copycats by glorifying the life of a person who died by suicide.

But the reality is that the internet is here to stay and social media is now a fundamental part of our world.

We cannot, by definition of what social media is, control it.

This means we need to be thinking about how to maximise the benefits while remaining aware that harm can occur, even if unintentionally.

There needs to be stronger education than ever around the impacts that social media and the internet - badly or ignorantly used - can have.

Young people are technologically savvy, so we need to work on the very positive fact that we can reach them with important and helpful messages, and make that more and more the reality.

Research shows that websites and social networking sites can provide them with positive contacts and information about how to reach out for help.

A key initiative supported by the Government is the LowDown website as part of the National Depression Initiative.

The LowDown helps young people deal with depression and other mental illnesses through the internet and text messaging.

This is a good example of our investment in mental health and suicide prevention in a way that appeals to young people and therefore connects with them, and we hope influences them.

I am also aware of other online networks that provide support, connection and a sense of belonging to people who might otherwise not have access to these things.

An excellent example of this is the Nutter's Club Facebook page, which evolved from the highly successful radio and Television programmes of the same name.

There has been a tremendous amount of good work and goodwill, not the least from comedian Mike King who was key to it all beginning.

Here, people are able to reach out to each other and know that they can express themselves without feeling judged.

That has to be a good thing.

More honesty, more openness; more willingness for people to express their vulnerability.

Between them the likes of John Kirwan and more recently Mike King have done a huge service to this country.

Today's conference with its theme 'How do we talk about suicide' provides a wonderful opportunity to explore ways in which we can discuss this issue safely and hopefully get a second wind in addressing New Zealand's suicide statistics.

We all have a role to play in suicide prevention.

The Government's ongoing work programme is set out in the New Zealand Suicide Prevention Strategy and the associated Action Plan.

The Action Plan brings together activity across a range of government agencies, including the health, education and justice sectors.

Major efforts have been made to improve mental health and addiction services.

In particular, emphasis has been placed on developing community mental health services, and strengthening the primary health care sector's responsiveness to people with mental health problems.

Suicidal thoughts and feelings can be overwhelming and frightening.

It is crucial that people feeling this way can ask someone they trust for help.

It is vital that individuals, families and communities understand the risk factors associated with suicide - specially the early warning signs and what to do to get help when they are noted.

Unfortunately, preventative measures are not always successful.

The death of a loved one by suicide is simply a devastating experience.

Many people bereaved by suicide report feelings of guilt, blame and responsibility for the death.

In turn, these reactions may increase their own risk of mental health problems and associated suicidal behaviour.

It is important in these situations that families, friends and others in the community are given the support they need.

The issues they are dealing with in their grief and loss are complex and insidious.

They need all our help to get through such times.

It is also important that they are given a chance to talk about what they are going through.

The Government provides support to families and whanau; friends and communities through services, such as Victim Support's bereavement service.

The important work done by Victim Support in the initial response to a suicide is highly valuable.

For example, by informing them about coronial processes and helping them to begin to come to terms with their loss.

The support given is important to a person's recovery - and yes it is a process of recovery and a long and difficult one.

I would also like to recognise the valuable work done by Clinical Advisory Services Aotearoa (CASA) and the support it provides to communities.

CASA's Community Postvention Response Service provides a support service that helps communities address and manage suspected or confirmed suicide contagion.

It does this by working with communities to collect information and to decide what steps, if any, may be needed.

Suicide prevention is a key focus area for this Government.

We continue to invest in effective interventions, while looking for new solutions that will make a difference in our communities.

I am sure your discussion panels today will stimulate robust debate about how we can further reduce suicide in New Zealand.

I believe it is important that issues arising from those discussions can be linked in to work underway, for example, refreshing the Suicide Prevention Action Plan.

As such, I am keen to hear any feedback or suggestions.

Thank you again for inviting me here today and I wish you well for your deliberations.

Your work is for the good our nation and will make a real difference in many lives.

ends.

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