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First months of pandemic didn't trigger suicide increase in 21 countries, including NZ - research

The start of the Covid-19 pandemic did not trigger an increase in suicide numbers in a number of countries, including New Zealand, new research has found. 

Person in Covid-19 lockdown (file photo). Source: istock.com

But, it notes people’s mental health needed to be monitored as the ongoing effects of the pandemic continued to bite.

In a paper published in The Lancet Psychiatry yesterday, researchers found suicide numbers remained largely unchanged or declined in 21 countries, compared with what was expected. 

Researchers examined statistics from high-income and upper-middle-income countries from January to October last year. It found the number of suicides in New Zealand throughout 2020 remained at about 79 per cent of what was expected.

Last year, suicide rates in New Zealand dropped to the lowest in three years. In the year to June 30, 654 people died by suicide, compared to 685 the year before.

Twelve of the 21 countries, which included parts of Australia, Canada, South Korea, Germany and the US, also recorded a less-than-expected number of suicides in 2020.

University of Auckland senior lecturer and suicide prevention researcher Sarah Fortune told 1 NEWS the research findings were promising because it showed suicides could be prevented with proactive actions.

Fortune, who did the analysis for New Zealand in the study, said researchers were continuing to try and understand what could be done to continue to decrease those numbers. 

“Here in New Zealand and internationally, it looks like countries where there has been significant economic support packages for members of the community who've been affected by Covid-19 are helpful.”

Fortune said positive messages about uniting against the virus and investing in programmes that supported wellbeing also looked “promising”.

“I think it gives us real hope that with significant advancements in significant cooperation, we can have a positive effect in terms of suicide prevention. What we need to be thinking now about the sustainability of those measures that look like they have had a really positive outcome,” Fortune said. 

“That's not to minimise the experience of people who had lost a loved one to death by suicide across the period. What we need to be watching for now is supporting different members of our community who have been and will continue to be affected by the consequences of experience. 

“We know that suicide, as a measure, is not equally distributed across our community. Some communities bear an undue burden and suicide. In Aotearoa, that includes Māori and people who are financially struggling.”

Source: TVNZ

The paper’s authors noted the effects of the pandemic on people’s wellbeing may not be evident immediately, and that suicide statistics wasn’t the only indicator about the state of people’s mental health. It also didn’t examine data from lower and lower-middle-income countries, which account for just under a half of the world’s suicide numbers. 

The study also said further research was needed to determine exactly what the impacts of mental health and financial support, implemented by many countries, had on improving people’s wellbeing. 

In May, a social media post went viral, claiming there had been 61 suicides in a week because of lockdown. The Mental Health Foundation and the Chief Coroner condemned the post as untrue and irresponsible

Mental Health Foundation: Mental health gains during lockdown tend to be short-lived 

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said while the study’s findings could seem counterintuitive, evidence from events like natural disasters and wars showed, at least initially, people’s mental health tended to improve. 

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson. Source: Breakfast

“A major natural disaster, and Covid-19 as a pandemic is definitely that, tends to create a sense of everybody being in this together.”

During lockdown, people were given financial support and were also actively encouraged to take steps to care for their mental health, like staying connected to other people and exercising. 

“So, we were actually encouraged to do many of the things that science proves actually helps our mental health and wellbeing,” Robinson said. 

“While for some people [lockdowns] did trigger worse mental distress, for many people it meant they were actually spending more time with the family and whānau.”

However, Robinson said, the phenomena tended to be short-lived. 

“Once we get through that ‘survival period’ and the ‘hero period’ where we’re all sort of pulling together, then the reality that life’s not going to go back to the way it was before, the stresses that have hit people, either the new ones or a re-emergence of the old ones, come back to bite us.”

Research commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation was already beginning to show this, he said. Data collected in December found 25 per cent of adults had “poor wellbeing”. That went up to 26 per cent when data was collected again in February. 

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“That's probably the highest estimate of mental distress in any one moment that I'm aware of. That would tend to indicate that by the end of 2020, the impact on people's mental wellbeing was starting to be pretty significant.”

He said it didn’t help that mental health services weren’t equipped for the increase in demand after “having been neglected for decades”. 

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He said the Ministry of Health also lacked up-to-date data assessing the level of mental health needs. 

“So, the service responses are very run down. Despite the Government working to put new services in place, it’s really a little bit like putting a bucket chain in front of a tsunami,” he said. 

But it was possible to try and get ahead of distress, Robinson added. In the same research, the charity found adopting behaviours like healthy eating, connecting with friends and family and taking time to relax increased the chance people reported having better well being. 

“We do need to keep building [mental health] services back up. But, we’re not going to be able to do that in any way in a short time, certainly not to meet the demands of Covid-19,” he said.

“So, the only realistic response is to really focus on what people in the community can do to look after their own mental health and wellbeing. 

“The light at the end of the tunnel is that we know the science and the research shows us this works and we can do it. We just need the will and the resources and the understanding from the Government to make it happen.”

It comes as the Government this morning announced it would be rolling out its $28 million in-school mental health and wellbeing programme to Northland, south Auckland, Bay of Plenty, Rotorua, Taupō and the West Coast. 

The programme, Mana Ake, was established after the number of children with mental health issues increased after the earthquakes of Canterbury and Kaikōura. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it aimed to intervene and build resilience among young people early before they reached a point of crisis.

She said this would have positive flow-on effects once they reached adulthood. 

Budget 2020 saw $40 million put towards funding free mental health services, on top of $1.9 billion in Budget 2019 over four years.