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

A rumour claiming there has been a spike in suicide rates during the alert level 4 lockdown is "irresponsible and untrue", the Mental Health Foundation says, while the Ministry of Health says there is "absolutely no truth" to the claim.

Both organisations say while Covid-19 may have significant effects on people's lives, an increase in serious mental health issues or suicides is not inevitable.

It comes as police say calls related to mental health and self-harm have remained steady.

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Police had been expecting more mental health related calls as people struggled with isolation and the general stress of the pandemic, police Assistant Commissioner Sandy Venables said.

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But while it was too early to give official data, anecdotally there had been no significant spike or decline in calls related to mental health and self-harm, Venable said.

"We know the current situation will cause stress and uncertainty for many. We want to remind everyone that it is okay to ask for help for yourself or for someone else. Help is available."

The widely spread rumour claimed suicides in one week that would equate to nearly five times the average. In the 2018-19 year there were 685 suicides, or just over 13 each week.

Director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay was asked at a press conference last week about suicide rates during lockdown, but said she did not have the figures to hand.

The Ministry of Health said today speculation about numbers of suspected suicides was inaccurate and unhelpful.

The Suicide Prevention Office and Chief Coroner are monitoring suspected suicide numbers, and monthly data is released each year by the Chief Coroner.

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Any decisions on releasing data outside this cycle would be made by the Chief Coroner but no such data has been released, according to a joint statement from Robyn Shearer, deputy director-general of mental health and addiction, and Carla na Nagara, the director of the Suicide Prevention Office.

"We all have a responsibility to promote and encourage mental wellbeing – our own and others'. It's too early to say what the effects of the Covid-19 response will be on people's mental health or suicide rates," they said.

"Fixating on worst case scenarios and talking about them as if they are inevitable is counterproductive and does not support our most vulnerable people."

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Suicide numbers could go up or down as a result of the Covid-19 response - data from previous international crises had shown both outcomes, the ministry said.

"Sometimes people realise how precious life is following a crisis and suicide numbers go down. Every life matters; it's vital we focus on preserving life rather than speculating about the likelihood of ending it."

Acting now, paying attention to mental wellbeing and accessing support when needed would help avoid a spike in distress in months to come, the ministry statement said.

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Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

Many sharing the rumour online have blamed the impacts of isolation, job losses and other pandemic-induced stressors on the purported increase in suicides.

The Mental Health Foundation said in a statement it was deeply disappointed to see the rumour circulating - and it was particularly worried about the impact this could have on people who were currently vulnerable to suicide.

"Whenever we have a public discussion about suicide, people who are currently suicidal or who are vulnerable to suicide are always listening," foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said.

"It's often not possible to tell who these people are, particularly online. But they're there, and, often, they are looking for reasons to justify or rationalise how they're feeling – they're very vulnerable to the suggestion that if others are taking this path then they could take it too. We should not be adding to this serious risk.

"These rumours and their accompanying commentary imply that suicide is an expected, understandable and proportionate response to Covid-19, and that's both untrue and an extremely unhelpful thing to suggest."

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Director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay addresses the media on April 30, several days after the end of the lockdown. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay addresses the media on April 30, several days after the end of the lockdown. Photo / Mark Mitchell

On April 23 the Ministry of Health told the Herald a daily health survey was being carried out, including asking questions on anxiety and depression. The ministry was also in regular communication with DHBs and providers for information on risk factors, crisis response and admission rates.

There was no data at that point suggesting an increase in those numbers as a result of Covid-19, but at times there had been increased demand on national helplines.

As well as a record investment into mental wellbeing by the current Government, extra support programmes had been launched during the Covid-19 crisis including apps and an e-therapy programme.

The Mental Health Foundation's Robinson said there were very few people in New Zealand who were able to accurately assess numbers of suicides nationally in real time.

"It is critically important not to contribute to misunderstandings and false information about suicide in New Zealand.

"While mental health workers, police and other people are an integral part of New Zealand's suicide prevention efforts, individuals will not be able to give an accurate picture of national suicides.

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"This is a tough time for New Zealanders, but we're seeing a lot of goodwill toward working together and supporting each other to get through," Robinson said.

WHERE TO GET HELP:

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 police immediately on 111.

OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:

0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
https://www.lifeline.org.nz/services/suicide-crisis-helpline
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202