Understanding suicide in New Zealand

Every year approximately 500 people in New Zealand take their own lives, with many more attempting suicide or experiencing levels of distress that places them at high risk of suicide.

Many factors influence a person’s decision to attempt suicide. Suicide prevention initiatives generally aim to promote protective factors and reduce risk factors for suicide, and improve the services available for people in distress.

To prevent suicide in New Zealand, it is vital that everyone – individuals, families, whānau, communities, employers, the media and government agencies – work together to promote protective factors and reduce risk factors known to influence suicide. No single initiative or organisation can prevent suicide on its own.


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Protective and risk factors for suicide

Suicide is typically the result of a combination of factors.

A range of protective factors can enhance a person’s wellbeing and resilience, and reduce their risk of suicide. These include: access to community and health resources, social connectedness, and the capacity to cope with life’s difficulties.

Risk factors for suicide include mental health issues, exposure to trauma (eg, disaster, family violence, abuse), a lack of social support (eg, living alone) and experiencing stressful life events (eg, chronic pain, discrimination, bullying, relationship conflict, job or financial loss).

Suicide prevention initiatives that aim to promote protective factors and reduce risk factors can include:

  • supporting the mental health, wellbeing and resilience of individuals, families, whānau and communities
  • promoting awareness of mental health issues at the community level
  • improving support for families and whānau who are bereaved by suicide or affected by a suicide attempt
  • developing and promoting guidance for key people (eg, families, whānau, teachers, police and frontline health and social support workers) who have contact with people who are at risk of suicide.

Suicide rates in New Zealand

Classification of a suicide death

In New Zealand, a death is only classified as suicide by the coroner on completion of the coroner’s inquiry. In some cases, an inquest may be heard several years after the death, particularly if there are factors relating to the death that need to be investigated first (for example, a death in custody). Consequently, a provisional suicide classification may be made before the coroner reaches a verdict.

The numbers of deaths by suicide in New Zealand are published annually by the Ministry of Health in Suicide Facts: Deaths and intentional self-harm hospitalisations. The most recent edition of Suicide Facts contains provisional 2012 data.

High level suicide information for 2013 (ahead of the Suicide Facts 2013 publication) is available at Suicide Facts: 2013 data. This data shows that in 2013, 508 people in New Zealand died by suicide – a rate of 11.0 deaths per 100,000 population.

Comparing New Zealand sources of data on suicide

In addition to the Ministry’s official statistics on suicide, each year the Chief Coroner releases provisional data on suspected self-inflicted deaths notified to the Coroner.

The following table outlines the key differences between the Ministry’s official statistical publication Suicide Facts and the Chief Coroner’s provisional data.

Suicide Facts (Ministry of Health)

Provisional suicide data (Coronial Services of NZ)

Annually by calendar year

Annually from July to June

Deaths which have been determined by a Coroner to be a suicide (including only a few provisional cases still to be determined)

Provisional count of all self-inflicted deaths referred into the coronial system, including active cases before a Coroner where intent is yet to be established by a Coroner

Subject to minor revisions as the few remaining provisional cases are finalised

Subject to significant revision as Coronial determinations are completed

For the above reasons, data is published approximately two to three years after the annual period of interest.

For the above reasons, data is published two months after the annual period of interest.

Comparing suicide rates across countries

It is difficult to compare suicide rates from different countries because of different standards countries use to determine whether a death is suicide. The level of proof required for a death to be classified as suicide can vary between countries, which means that comparing suicide rates between countries may not be comparing like with like.

Compared with other OECD countries, New Zealand’s 2011 suicide rate for both males and females was towards the middle of the range (16th highest for both males and females). New Zealand’s youth suicide rate in 2011 for both males and females was the second highest in the OECD.

Terms used in suicide prevention

  • attempted suicide – a range of actions where people make attempts at suicide that are non-fatal
  • bereaved by suicide – those close to a person who has died by suicide, needing specific support and who can be at greater risk of complicated grief or suicide themselves
  • deliberate self-harm – a range of behaviours that may or may not result in serious injury, but are not intentionally fatal
  • mental health and wellbeing – a social, mental and emotional state in which a person can fully contribute to community life and achieve their potential
  • resilience – a person’s capacity to cope with adversity, seek help when it’s needed and protect against factors that might increase their risk of suicide
  • social connectedness – refers to the relationships people have with others and the benefits these relationships can bring to the individual as well as to society
  • suicide – the act of intentionally killing oneself as determined by coronial ruling
  • suicidal behaviour/s – encompasses suicide, attempted suicide, deliberate self-harm and suicidal ideation
  • suicidal ideation – thoughts of suicide
  • suicide cluster – multiple suicides or suicide attempts, or both, occurring closer together in time, geography, or through social connections than would normally be expected for a given community
  • suicide contagion – where the original suicide influences others to attempt or complete suicide
  • suicide postvention – the wide range of activities undertaken directly after a suicide in a community due to the potentially harmful effect a suicide may have on others
  • suicide prevention – the wide range of activities focusing on increasing protective factors and reducing risk factors associated with suicidal behaviour
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