Warning: This article is about youth suicide and may be distressing for some readers.
The Ministry of Education is reviewing official advice to schools on how to handle student suicide, days after the New Zealand Herald reported widespread concerns from principals.
The decision was announced on Thursday, three days after the publication of a major Herald investigation that found many secondary school principals were confused about what they could tell students about suicide and felt like they weren't getting enough help from authorities.
The ministry's announcement came in response to detailed questions from the Herald about a string of problems with its official resource kit for schools, called Preventing and Responding to Suicide.
We highlighted that six of the internet links in the resource kit were broken, with one sending schools to a loans company in the South Pacific. We questioned why the ministry was pointing schools towards a programme that was no longer available in New Zealand. And we asked how the resource kit could say there had been an "overall reduction in the rates of suicide in young people" when our analysis found the number of youth suicides has remained almost exactly the same for the past decade.
The ministry said the Herald's recent coverage was not the reason behind the review.
"We are coming up to the five-year anniversary of the resource kit for schools which is an appropriate timeframe for us to review the currency of the background research and the content," said Katrina Casey, head of sector enablement and support at the ministry.
"Thank you for the information on the broken links. We have now fixed those. The link that goes through to a South Pacific loans company was incorrect," she said.
Last week, the Herald launched a major series about New Zealand's shocking youth suicide rate. We canvassed our 507 secondary schools on their suicide policies and found deep-seated frustrations and fears, with almost all of the 235 schools that responded saying they did not think they were allowed to even use the word suicide in classrooms.
New Zealand has the second worst suicide rate among those aged 25 and under in the developed world. It has the worst rate among teens.
The Herald series, Break The Silence, aims to raise awareness of our suicide rates, to start a national conversation about the issue and to encourage young people to ask for help.
Asked whether the Herald coverage played any part in the ministry's decision to review the advice it gives to schools, Casey said it was appropriate to "check in every few years on what's new" when it comes to research-based resources like this one.
She said youth suicide had been "becoming very topical" for the last few months and added that the government has been working on a new suicide prevention strategy so it was important for the ministry to "ensure our advice and toolkit is consistent with that work as it develops".
When pushed on the coincidence around the launch of the Herald series and the ministry announcing the review of the document, Casey said: "We feel we have addressed your questions in our previous response."
The Herald has been liaising with the Ministry of Education over the content of the resource kit for weeks. There was no previous mention of a review of the content.
This resource was last updated in 2013 after a number of schools complained about the ministry's previous policy which stated "that all suspected suicides be referred to as sudden deaths".
The schools felt like this policy gagged them from being able to openly and honestly talk to their students about suicide. The ministry updated the resource kit to allow schools to say the word suicide four years ago, but advised they restrict conversations on this issue and talk more about how students were feeling rather than about suicide.
Silence on suicide has been orthodox in New Zealand since a massive increase in teen suicides in the mid-1990s led to experts nudging officials towards international research that found talking about the issue could cause copycat deaths.
In the past 20 years, this copycat concept, often called "contagion", has been questioned by more progressive researchers who claim the earlier studies were misleading and selective and that talking about suicide will help reduce the stigma that smothers it.
Last July, the Coroners Act was amended to allow New Zealand media to label a self-inflicted death as a "suspected suicide" before a coronial finding is released. Previously, media were only allowed to refer to suspected suicides in New Zealand as sudden deaths.
Although the latest version of the ministry's toolkit allows schools to mention the word suicide, the pre-written script the ministry's trauma team hands out for teachers to read to students in the wake of a death aims to minimise discussion or "rumours" about suicide, and does not mention why it happens or how to prevent it. It tells students that they can talk to teachers about how they are feeling and ends by saying: "Although things are difficult now they will return to normal."
Despite the ministry's updated policy and the recent legislation change in this area, schools appear to still be confused about what they can say about suicide. Almost all the 235 schools that responded to the Herald said they would not use the word suicide after a student death because they were not allowed to.
Two schools that suffered a teen suicide in the past year told the Herald they had been advised not to use the word suicide.
As well as reviewing the toolkit, the Ministry of Education said it would contact all schools early next term and reinforce the fact that they are now able to refer to a self-inflicted death as a "suspected suicide".
Earlier this month, Education Minister Nikki Kaye told the Herald it was time for a "national conversation" about youth suicide. On Thursday, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said it required a "whole of society response".
The Government announced an extra $224 million for mental health in this year's Budget.
Coleman said $110m was for a "specific innovation fund". A paper with specific proposals for how that would be spent was before Cabinet. Another $100m would boost existing services and the remaining $24m would go to programmes across different departments.
- additional reporting, Tristram Clayton.
• Support the Mental Health Foundation by texting 'Break the Silence' to 2446 to make an automatic $3 donation.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.
If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:
DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234
There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.