A Whangarei woman whose daughter died in 2008 said New Zealand's high suicide rate should not be treated as a medical problem, with the response to it controlled by Ministry of Health.

Deb Williams said data showed poverty, abuse and other community-based factors were behind the majority of suicides, and the Ministry for Social Development (MSD), not the Ministry of Health (MoH), should lead an inter-agency suicide prevention response.

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Ms Williams said suicide prevention programmes and information sharing was controlled by the MoH, with medical conventions of confidentiality and intervention shaping how the wider society could react to the problem.


She said there needed to be a shift in thinking from a medical to a social explanation of suicide.

"The prescribing of anti-depressants doesn't help deal with the causes of the problems that make people depressed or feeling suicidal, they don't help the real condition,'' Ms Williams said.

"What's driving depression and suicides are things like unemployment, poverty, sexual and domestic abuse, poor housing, all things we [in New Zealand] lead the way at."

When her 20-year old daughter Cloudy Williams killed herself in 2008, and until then-Chief Coroner Neil MacLean allowed the inquest into the death to be publicly reported, Ms Williams had no idea suicide was a serious issue in New Zealand, she said.

Since then she has campaigned to have embargoes on reporting those deaths or discussing the topic in schools lifted.

Ms Williams co-founded Community Action on Suicide Prevention, Education and Research (CASPER) with Auckland woman Maria Bradshaw whose teenage son Toran also died by suicide in 2008.

Ms Bradshaw recently completed a paper entitled "It Takes a Village: The case for adopting a social approach to suicide prevention", which questions the MoH position that the majority who carry out suicide could be diagnosed as mentally ill.

"In layperson's terms, the studies on which [the government] rely do no more than say that after a person dies from suicide, their friends and family report that at some point during their lives for a period of two weeks they were sad, had changes in their eating or sleeping patterns, lost interest in things they had previously enjoyed, felt guilty or worthless or thought of suicide."

"There is no evidence that these feelings and behaviours caused their suicide, or that they were anything other than a normal human response to stressful life events or trauma."

Ms Bradshaw said CASPER believed relocating funding from mental health services to services which reduce the impact of the social drivers of suicide was critical to improving outcomes.