David Lange once confessed that governing was actually easier in a crisis because it becomes starkly clear what you need to say and do. Jacinda Ardern could probably say the same thing now. Everything she said and did in response to terrorism was bold, concise and decisive.

Bold, concise and decisive were not words I would have used for her or her Government previously. Like a lot of Labour thinking, to my mind it has lacked focus. If National governments see a problem (admittedly a big if) they zero in on it and look for a practical solution. When Labour people look at a problem they tend to see it as a symptom of wider problems and find it all too complex for a concrete solution.

Not just Labour politicians. Public servants, academics and professionals in social policy suffer from the same syndrome. These are people Labour governments appoint to inquiries to advise them what to do.


Not long before events in Christchurch obliterated all other subjects on our mind, a woman had asked me to "write something about youth suicide". She had a friend who had just lost her daughter. She didn't give me any details and I didn't ask. You don't.

Nobody needs to ask. We've all known someone. Son or daughter, rich or poor, gifted or normal, depression makes no distinctions. The devastated parents will talk about it if they want to, mainly to share the unanswerable questions that will torment them for the rest of their lives.

The rest of us can only wonder why, in this of all countries, we lose so many in this way. But the only question worth asking is, what can be done to catch these kids before they fall over the edge?

National should have tackled the problem and I had high hopes the new Government would do so. Ardern had campaigned on it, surrounded by 600 pairs of shoes representing the number we lose in a year. When the coalition commissioned an inquiry into mental health in its first 100 days, I looked forward to something being done at last. So did Herald colleagues who had written a good, searching series on the subject.

The Report of the Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction landed in December. It ran to hundreds of pages as these things do. Nice title, nice colour graphics, swags of recommendations, an executive summary that suggested there was substance within.

The report had shockingly little to say about suicide, being more concerned with less severe psychological disorders in the population. It wants the Government to fund more "talk therapies" for those. Suicide gets one chapter near the end and here is what it concluded: "Reducing New Zealand's suicide rates ... should be a cross-party and cross-sectoral national priority." (Uh huh.) "Stronger and sustained leadership is required, including the establishment of a suicide prevention office." (To do what exactly?) "A comprehensive, well-resourced suicide prevention strategy and implementation plan must be urgently completed." (Is your heart sinking too?).

Finally, "The strategy should include a suicide prevention target of 20 per cent reduction in suicide rates by 2030." A target.

Targets are good for focusing an organisation on what needs to be done when a solution is known.


This Government prefers targets it doesn't really know how to reach. A billion trees, a hundred thousand houses, net zero carbon emissions, smoke-free 2025 (a hangover from the Clark Government). A 20 per cent suicide reduction by 2030? Why not? Call it "aspirational", or virtue signalling.

You think that last phrase unfair? Read what the Mental Health Report said about its target. "Views are mixed about establishing a suicide reduction target. On the one hand, suicide is complex ... making it challenging to achieve a target. On the other hand, setting a target sends a clear signal that suicide prevention is a priority ..." That's all it is, a signal they mean well.

Health Minister David Clark praised the report and promised decisions on it in March. Last week he said Cabinet decisions post-Christchurch had delayed him. It's possible that decisive work can concentrate their minds for other tasks too.

More than 70 people aged 20-24 took their own life in the year to June 2018. Whenever you read a parent's account, it seems clear what these people need. A place to go whenever they know they are a danger to themselves, and a service that will stay in touch with them.

But all that this inquiry could suggest was more paperwork — a strategy, a meaningless target, a suicide prevention office and the creation of a permanent "Mental Health and Wellbeing Commission". I despair.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.