Warning: This article is about suicide and may be distressing for some readers.

New Zealand's youth suicide rate is "appalling" and we, as a country, have not done enough to help children struggling with mental health, says the Ministry of Health's deputy director of mental health.

The growing demand for specialist mental health services is one of the biggest challenges facing our generation, Dr Ian Soosay told the Herald.

Every year New Zealand's Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs) experience growing demand and, in turn, there are growing levels of unmet need.


Last year, Camhs had more than 32,000 referrals. Almost 2000 of those cases were rejected or quickly referred to another service, according to documents obtained under the Official Information Act.

Speaking to the Herald as part of our Break the Silence series on youth suicide, Soosay said the biggest health concern today was mental health.


The full Break The Silence series can be read here.

Investigation: The untold story teen suicide in the North

Fifty years ago the challenge was infectious diseases. Thirty years ago it was cardiovascular diseases and now it was mental health, Soosay said, adding that one in four Kiwis would experience some form of mental illness in their lives.

New Zealand has the worst teen suicide rate in the developed world and the second worst youth suicide rate. The annual number of deaths has remained largely unchanged for the past 20 years.

As a psychiatrist, Soosay said he dealt with patients who were suicidal and he had lost patients to suicide before. "It's a very difficult position to be in with somebody who reached that depth. It's distressing and upsetting.


"I wish we could instantly solve this, but the problem is that it's not going to be instantly solved.

"We have no choice but to start to think differently about how we address the problems in mental health.

"We're trying lots of different things and there is a sense of urgency around this, but it is going to take a while. We need to shift the whole system and that's the sort of discussions we are having in government now. It's not feasible just to do things in the same way."

If we wanted to make "a real difference" we needed to build an alliance of people to address this, Soosay urged. "It's something we all as New Zealanders need to address."

This year's Budget set aside an additional $224 million for mental health services over the next four years. About $25m a year will go towards "innovative" proposals to tackle mental health issues.

In an email to the Herald, Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman pointed towards provisional Ministry of Health data from 2014 which shows the rate of youth suicide decreasing in New Zealand.

When the Herald provided more recent figures obtained under the Official Information Act that show the number of youth suicides increasing since 2014, Coleman's press secretary said the ministry's data was "what we use as the confirmed suicide rate".

The Herald figures show there were 121 youth suicides in the 2007/08 financial year and 123 in the 2014/15 financial year.

Coleman said youth suicide was an issue he was focused on doing more about. "Suicide is a whole-of-society problem and there needs to be an increased focus on resilience and mental wellness."

He expects to announce the details of initiatives funded from the $224m boost in the coming weeks.

• Support Youthline by donating via youthline.co.nz/breakthesilence.


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:

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.