Setting a suicide-reduction target might have been detrimental to the govt’s wellbeing

The headline on a statement released from the PM’s Office on the eve of the official release of the Wellbeing Budget tells us the government is Taking mental health and addiction seriously.

To demonstrate this, the government has accepted, accepted in principle, or agreed to further consideration of 38 of the 40 recommendations in the report of the Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction.

This raises an obvious question:  which two recommendations have been rejected?

The press statement gives the answer:

  • The Directing the State Services Commission to report on options for creating a ‘locus of responsibility’ for social wellbeing within Government; and
  • Set a target of 20% reduction in suicide rates by 2030.

Health Minister David Clark, explaining the first of those two rejections, said all of Government needs to be focused on social wellbeing and it does not need its own separate agency.

As to the question of a suicide target, he said this was considered at length, and as acknowledged in the report, views are mixed.

“We’re not prepared to sign up to a suicide target because every life matters, and one death by suicide is one death too many.

But is that the only consideration?

At first blush, the rejection of a suicide-reduction target also reflects some doubt within the government that it can improve our wellbeing as quickly and/or to the extent implied by a wealth of wellbeing rhetoric.

Ministers have cause to pause before setting new targets.  Just ask the Minister of Housing, whose track record comes under scrutiny in this Newshub report:

Housing Minister Phil Twyford has admitted the Government will fall short of yet another scaled-down KiwiBuild target.

He has also revealed that the struggling policy won’t receive any additional funding in Thursday’s Budget.

During question time today, Twyford said he expected 266 KiwiBuild houses to be completed by July 1.

That number had previously been 300, after Twyford was forced to scale back his original forecasts of having 1000 completed by July 1.

Newshub, it so happens, earlier this week reported its understanding that a suicide reduction target would not be adopted by the Government.

The prospect of failing to meet the target was one factor mentioned by Newshub, although the PM gave the same reason as Clark.

The mental health inquiry wanted New Zealand’s shocking suicide rates reduced by 20 percent by 2030.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has always said she struggled with the idea because we should have zero tolerance to suicide and adopting a target suggests we tolerate any number.

Governments are also historically wary of being held accountable if a target isn’t met.

The magnitude of the challenge – if targets were set – can be gauged from a Stuff report headed New Zealand suicide rate highest since records began.

The number of people who have taken their own lives in New Zealand is the highest since records began, with 668 dying by suicide in the past year.

It was the fourth year in a row that number has increased. It was also the highest number of suspected suicide deaths since the coroner’s annual provisional suicide statistics were first recorded in 2007-08. 

Clark today declared that the government is committed to tackling the terrible record on suicide.

“The Ministry of Health is in the process of finalising a draft suicide prevention strategy and is working on options for an office of suicide prevention.

“There are no quick-fixes for these issues. The drivers of mental health and addiction issues are deep seated and long standing, but as a Government we are committed to tackling them.”

“New Zealanders in distress deserve our support, plain and simple,” said David Clark.

Ardern similarly declared:

“The Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction laid down a challenge to the Government and to all New Zealanders. We need to transform our thinking and approach to mental health and addiction – and that is what we are committing to today,” Jacinda Ardern said.

“We all know people who have lived with mental health and addiction challenges. This touches every community and every family and we must do better.”

Inquiry recommendations accepted include:

  • Significantly increase access to publicly funded mental health and addiction services for people with mild to moderate needs
  • Commit to increase choice by broadening the types of services available
  • Urgently complete the national suicide prevention strategy
  • Establish an independent commission to provide leadership and oversight of mental health and addiction
  • Repeal and replace the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992

This will require the building of new services, the training of hundreds of new staff and the building of new facilities across the country.  

“All this will take significant and sustained investment. That begins with tomorrow’s Wellbeing Budget but will take years,” Jacinda Ardern said.

Just one more sleep and we can see for ourselves how our wellbeing will be given a fiscal fillip.

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