Suicide figures require care in interpretation

Annette Beautrais.
Annette Beautrais.
Updated suicide statistics for the Queenstown Lakes area should be treated with the utmost care. Guy Williams gets an expert’s interpretation, and finds out what mental health services are available in the district.

Nothing should be read into a rise in the number of suicides in the Queenstown Lakes district in the past three years, a suicide expert says.

Nineteen people took their own lives in the district in the six years to April this year, 14 of them in the past three years.

The numbers, provided by the Coroner’s Office, are provisional: some of the deaths are suspected suicides for which the Coroner has yet to make an official finding.

Prof Annette Beautrais, a University of Canterbury academic specialising in suicide research and prevention, said the sample size for the numbers was too small to draw statistically robust conclusions about trends or rates of suicide.

"It’s very easy to compute and misinterpret a high suicide rate for a small population.

"The data are too sparse, and it just doesn’t make sense to try and look at trends over six years when you have a small population and a very small number of suicides."

People could easily jump to the wrong conclusions by, for example, comparing suicides in one year to those in another.

"One suicide in 2013 and five in 2016, that’s a 400% increase — ‘oh this is terrible’. You alarm people unnecessarily.

"I’ve never seen newspaper articles take the time or caution to say to people ‘these are statistically rare events data, and you can’t read anything into them’."

For the same reasons, it was a mistake to compare per capita rates of suicide in district or health board areas, because those rates were too volatile to be statistically valid.

Even for national suicide data, statisticians did not compare one year’s numbers with the next to consider trends, but looked at three-year rolling averages.

Prof Beautrais, who ran a well-attended suicide prevention workshop in Queenstown six weeks ago, said she also advised the media against reporting a ‘‘spate’’ of suicides, because it "provided a model for vulnerable people in a community".

"Suicide is an emotive topic, and it generates an emotive response, and we have a public discourse in New Zealand that has been constant over the past few months, which has been relentlessly negative around suicide."

She wanted the focus of public discussion to change from suicide to one of suicide prevention.

Last month, comedian and suicide campaigner Mike King stepped down as a member of a national suicide prevention panel, claiming the Government’s recently released draft suicide prevention plan was too vague and broad to make a difference to the suicide rate.

The draft plan, which has drawn both praise and criticism, comes amid unprecedented scrutiny of funding of mental health services.

James Smithells was a clinical psychologist in Queenstown for nearly two decades before moving to Nelson in April.

During that time he worked privately and for the Southern District Health Board’s (SDHB) mental health team.

Mr Smithells said the stresses of living in Queenstown had increased in the past few years, and it was critical that people struggling with their mental health reached out for help.

"It’s all the usual things — housing, the cost of living, the traffic.

"Also the fact that often, two parents have to work several jobs, and so they don’t have time for each other or the kids. The family structure gets shaky because of that."

SDHB mental health medical director Dr Brad Strong said services in the district were provided by the Wakatipu Community Mental Health team, which consisted of 12 clinicians including psychologists, social workers, nurses and a mental health needs assessor.

Based across the road from Lakes District Hospital in Frankton, the team operated during business hours and provided mental health and addiction services including assessment, follow-up and treatment for people experiencing moderate to severe mental illness.

Dr Strong said a 24-hour mental health crisis service could be accessed through an 0800 number answered by a member of the Southland Mental Health Emergency team, based in Invercargill.

Queenstown-based staff provided a limited crisis response service out of hours, but the Invercargill-based team responded between midnight and 8.30am.

The Otago Daily Times approached the Wakatipu Postvention Group for comment on this article, but was referred to WellSouth suicide prevention co-ordinator for Otago and Southland, Paul Martin.

Mr Martin said the group, set up in 2011, had 12 voluntary members with the knowledge, skills and experience to support people at risk of suicide.

It operated under the umbrella of the SDHB, Ministry of Health and the Coroner’s Office, as well as with him.

His own employer, primary health network WellSouth, provided education and online resources to community agencies such as the community postvention groups throughout Otago and Southland.

A new national suicide prevention training programme would be available from August, he said.


Where to find help

Emergency mental health services: 0800 467 846 (then 1 for Queenstown or 2 for Wanaka and Central Otago)

• Lakes Community Mental Health Team, 19 Douglas St, Frankton, (03) 441-0010. Open 8.30am to 4.30pm

• Brief Intervention Primary Mental Health Service: available to people with mild to moderate mental health issues. Generally referred by an GP. 

• Queenstown Lakes Family Centre: provides support for families and children from 0-18 years with mild to moderate mental health issues, 16 McBride St, Frankton, (03) 441-4331. Website:



• The Depression Helpline (0800 111 757)

• Healthline (0800 611 116)

• Lifeline (0800 543 354)

• Samaritans (0800 726 666)

• Youthline (0800 376 633) txt 234 or

• Alcohol Drug Helpline (0800 787 797)

• General mental health inquiries: 0800 44 33 66

• Citizens Advice Bureau: 0800 367 222

• Family Services Directory: 0800 211 211 or

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