Training focuses on `natural helpers' for those in danger of taking their own lives.

Hairdressers are the new front line in a campaign to strengthen "natural helpers" for suicide risks.

Casper, a suicide prevention group formed by the mother of a Takapuna schoolboy who killed himself in 2008, has trained the staff of Takapuna hair salon Oscar and Co on how to respond if a client discloses someone close has killed themselves - or if a client feels suicidal.

"Previously you would change the subject," said salon owner Gene Cooksley. "Someone says, 'My child has taken his life.' You say, 'How's the weather?"'

After a short training session with Casper founder Maria Bradshaw, he and his nine hairstylists have learned that someone who raises the issue may actually want to talk about it.


"It's a matter of not saying that 'time heals', or 'it's meant to be' or 'they are in a better place', all those dreadful things," Mr Cooksley said.

"It's being able to speak about them and their life - what school they were at, what they were studying, what sports they played."

The salon also refers people to Casper for more support.

Ms Bradshaw, whose son Toran Henry committed suicide aged 17, said hairdressers were "natural helpers" for people in distress, along with people such as taxi drivers, bartenders, sports coaches and school grounds staff.

"The evidence is that 80 per cent of people will follow health advice from a hairdresser for diabetes."

New York research after the World Trade Centre terrorist attack 12 years ago today found 71 per cent of hairdressers said their customers wanted to talk to them about their feelings on the attack, but 42 per cent of hairdressers found it hard to talk about it.

Otago University psychiatrist Roger Mulder told a Casper conference in Auckland yesterday the psychiatric model of screening people for risk factors was not effective in preventing suicide. Only 3 per cent of those labelled as "high risk" actually killed themselves, while 60 per cent of actual suicides had been categorised as "low risk".

"We've had a 20- or 30-year experiment which hasn't worked."


He said there was no evidence yet that "social" approaches such as training hairdressers worked either but, with 10 per cent of all adults now on anti-depressants, something new was needed.

Ms Bradshaw said most suicides were not caused by mental illness, but by people feeling they did not belong and were a burden on others.

Rather than prescribing pills, she is developing an electronic "social prescribing pad" by which doctors can prescribe exercise, nutrition, volunteering, art, play, and more connection with animals and nature - all things "natural helpers" could also suggest.

Natural helpers

*Taxi drivers
*Sports coaches
*School grounds staff