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

In March this year, the Ministry of Health axed a decade-long $800,000 contract for Lifeline to provide suicide-prevention training to frontline workers.

The funding cut, which was revealed to the Herald through documents provided to Labour under the Official Information Act, "devastated" Lifeline - an organisation that has worked to prevent suicide in New Zealand for more than 50 years.

The funding was shifted to a "new preferred supplier" after several contractors pitched for the work last November, a ministry official said.


News of the terminated Lifeline contract comes just days after an international expert told an Auckland conference of mental health workers - and ministry officials - that training, particularly the programme run by Lifeline, was one of the most important suicide-prevention strategies worldwide.

"Suicide-specific training is what saves lives," said United States-based David Covington, president of Rotary International and leader of the international "zero suicide" prevention movement.

"These simple actions are proven to make a difference," he said.

At a suicide prevention conference last Thursday, Covington outlined the importance of the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (Asist) programme, a two-day course that trains frontline workers such as counsellors, teachers and nurses on how to identify those at-risk and confidently keep them safe.

For the past 15 years, Lifeline has worked to adapt the international programme specifically for New Zealand and it has trained more than 8000 frontline staff.

The Australian Government funds the Lifeline Australia branch to run the Asist programme. And up until March 31, the New Zealand Government did too.

The termination of the annual $285,000 contract was a "massive loss and a huge blow" to Lifeline, said executive director Glenda Schnell.

"We had a huge amount of training capability and learning that was gathered over that 10-year period that was being put into practice," Schnell said.


For the past four weeks, the Herald has run a special series called Break the Silence which has been analysing why New Zealand has the highest teen suicide rate in the developed world and why the number of deaths has remained largely unchanged for the past 20 years.

• Read the full Break the Silence series here.

One of the potential solutions to what some deem to be a "youth suicide crisis" is pouring more funding into suicide-prevention training for those working with the most at-risk young people in the country, experts claim.

Communities were "crying out for support" in this area, Schnell said.

More than 20 organisations have contacted Lifeline seeking the Asist training since its funding was cut in March.

The supplier that won the funding contract was Le Va, a national health provider based in Manukau. It would roll out the new national suicide prevention training programme, called LifeKeepers, in September, said chief executive Dr Monique Faleafa.

"We love the work of Lifeline and we can't really comment on what's gone on before," Faleafa said. "We need to do better [to reduce our suicide rate] and this means doing things differently. This is a new approach and a new initiative."

Labour Party leader Andrew Little said he was surprised to hear Lifeline had lost the funding contract because the organisation had a "great track record and knows how to do the job".

He raised serious concerns about the six-month hiatus between Lifeline's funding being cut and the new provider stepping in.

"Right now we need every effort to be made every day on suicide prevention and it's not enough to have a six-month gap," he said.

Faleafa said LifeKeepers would deliver targeted training programmes to resonate with specific communities, which gave it a new point of difference.

"I think when it comes to suicide there will be a long time before supply meets demand. There is never going to be enough to go around in terms of preventing suicide," she said.

Caroline Wilson, managing director of A-OK workshops which run Asist, said communities across the country had started to rally around to support the programme since its funding was terminated.

In Greymouth, for example, advocates were washing cars to try to fundraise for the training programme because "they believe in it so much", she said.

"I'm not saying we're the answer to everything, but we'd all like to know why we've just been dropped like a hotcake," Wilson said.

"It's just devastating because internationally these programmes are proven to work. If they [ministry officials] could just think about the work that has already been done over the past 10 years and please just allow us to build on it rather than cut us out."

An independent panel evaluated all of the bids for the national suicide-prevention training contract last year and together recommended Le Va as a new preferred provider, a ministry official said.

"The ministry recognises the services that Lifeline has provided to people experiencing mental distress and acknowledges Lifeline's commitment to building the capacity and capability of communities to respond to individuals at risk of suicide through the delivery of Asist over the past 15 years," a ministry spokesperson said.

"A competitive procurement process took place. Lifeline were part of this process, but were unsuccessful."

The budget for the new programme has increased by $250,000 a year and it will be delivered across the country free of charge, focusing particularly on vulnerable communities with larger Maori and Pacific populations.


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.