Preventing suicide: identifying risk and protective factors

Taylor-Jane Cox investigates the mechanisms of suicidal decision-making processes.

Dan Meyers via Unsplash

Over the past four years, New Zealand’s suicide statistics have continued to increase. In 2018, New Zealand’s suicide rate was at its highest at 13.67 per 100,000. Males made up 75% of this number. That’s almost double the amount of people that died on our roads last year.

These statistics just “touch the surface” of New Zealand’s serious social and health crisis.  That doesn’t include the countless others who think about, or attempt suicide each day.  Young men, especially rural and Māori men, between the ages of 18-30 years, are New Zealand’s riskiest group of individuals–with suicide being their leading cause of death. Every suicide creates significant, far-reaching impacts on the person’s family, friends and wider community. 

My research arose as an outgrowth of my experience growing up in a rural environment and working at Youthline for a number of years with suicidal individuals.

Although a number of risk factors associated with suicidality have been documented in the current literature, such as feelings of hopelessness, they have often failed to enhance our understanding on the underlying mechanisms that perpetuate suicidal behaviour. Are there risk factors that we are not aware of? And are there factors that buffer against the influence of these risk factors?

A recent growing body of research has identified factors such as grit, the ability to persevere towards long-term goals, as a buffer of suicide, even in those who experience elevated feelings of hopelessness (a well-documented risk factor for suicidal ideation).

Though identifying risk and protective factors are extremely important for prevention, a large majority of people who feel hopeless will not take their life. So what is the difference between those people and those who sadly do?

Working alongside my supervisor Dr Seth Harty at the School of Psychology, Speech and Hearing at the University of Canterbury, my project seeks to investigate novel risk and protective factors associated with hopelessness. The information gained from these processes will result in the identification of significant factors contributing to and protecting against feelings of hopelessness, and the underlying mechanisms of suicidal ideation.

What is unique about my research is I will be exploring the possible mechanisms that propel risk factors to suicidal thoughts, which can progress to suicidal behavior. Identifying the mechanisms of this decision-making process is key for targeted intervention.  

My current study aims to recruit approximately 400 young males nationwide in the 18-30 year age bracket, with a focus on those who are in rural areas, and those who are typically resistant to reaching out to services.  This group has previously not been studied here in New Zealand, and accessing this particularly resistant group is no easy feat. Therefore, I have been identifying unique and innovative ways to reach them, such as through local pub events and rugby club rooms.

The overarching goal of this research being, if we can identify specific factors and mechanisms, we can one day create meaningful strategies to prevent and buffer against suicidal behaviour. This project will made available online in the next couple of weeks.

Suicide is preventable. If you’re struggling, it helps to talk.

Support Services in New Zealand 

  • Need to talk? 1737 Free call or text 24/7- Talk with a trained counsellor, anytime 
  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354 – Provides 24-hour telephone counselling 
  • Youthline: 0800 376 633 or free text 234 – Provides 24-hour telephone and text counselling services for young people 

Support Services at the University of Canterbury 

Student Care 
The Student Care Team is available to give advice on the issues affecting you and can direct you to ongoing support if needed. 

Level 2 
Central Library 
Puaka-James Hight Building
Phone: +64 3 369 3388 

UC Health Centre 
The UC Health Centre offers free counselling to UC students. The Health Centre is located in the UCSA carpark adjacent to the Ilam school boundary. 
Phone: +64 3 369 4444

Māori Development Team 
The Māori Student Development Team (MSDT) provides targeted developmental and support initiatives that enhance the Māori student experience to optimise their personal social and academic success. 

Te Ao Marama building, 
Arts Road 
Phone: +64 3 369 3868

Pacific Development Team 
The Pacific Development Team provides a number of support services for Pasifika students.

37 Creyke Road, Ilam Christchurch. 
Phone: +64 3 369 3554 ext 93554 

Additional support services can be found at: 

Taylor-Jane Cox is a Clinical Psychology Student, studying towards a Master of Science in Psychology at the University of Canterbury. She is also the Student Representative of the New Zealand Institute of Clinical Psychology.

For more information about this project, get in touch with Taylor-Jane at