The costs of suicide

The costs of suicide to society are high. There are not only the ‘intangible costs’; the grief and bereavement of family, whänau and friends, and the lost potential of lives cut short, but also the direct economic costs of suicide. The annual economic cost of suicidal behaviour to New Zealand society is estimated to total $1,381,492,000 – nearly $1.4 billion. – NZ Suicide Prevention Strategy, p.4

Suicide, then, is expensive business. I hate that we measure it in dollars when the more important measures are those of human cost, but human costs just aren’t important enough to people with budgets and calculators on their desks. The devastation that suicide causes to people should be reason enough to throw anything we could at prevention, but we live in a world of pennies and pounds.

$1.4 billion is a lot of money. What if we threw a bunch of that at decent suicide prevention? If the bean-counters really think that we could pull back $1.4 billion if we prevented suicide in NZ, then why aren’t we throwing money at this? Good suicide prevention tends to involve good mental health care, and that would reduce the burden of disease that depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses place on society.

There are plenty of good economic reasons to treat mental illness before it becomes suicide. Why on earth aren’t we doing it? I believe it’s partly because those in power don’t actually believe the costs of mental illness and suicide. If they really understood how much mental illness cost society, they would absolutely pour some cash into prevention and cure. The numbers are meaningless to them though, just figures on paper. There’s no visceral awareness of how much mental illness and suicide cost, in dollars and in pain.

Suicide prevention is neglected, because it’s seen as expensive and ineffective, while the real expense is leaving suicidal people untreated. It’s neglected because suicide is still seen as shameful. It’s neglected because of a lack of understanding, and a lack of compassion. We can do better, and the government’s own figures tell us that it would be a logical investment.

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