The Federal Labor Party has made a commitment, should they be elected to government, to halve the country’s suicide rate within a decade. Labor’s mental health spokeswoman, Jan McLucas, says that setting targets provides a goal to work towards.
Beyond Blue chairman, Jeff Kennett, whilst supporting any initiatives that help reduce suicide rates, described the targets as very, very challenging.
Researcher Samara McPhedran highlights why suicide prevention is so challenging. She says,
“Suicide is the culmination of complex interactions between biological, social, social, economic, cultural and psychological factors operating at individual, community and societal levels.”
Any reduction in suicide rates is dependent on a commitment of government to fund and promote ongoing data collection, analysis and in depth research.
Targets are not something we are unfamiliar with. They have been used successfully over a number of years in reducing the national road toll. A new Australian road safety campaign in Victoria has set a target of zero road deaths. Minister for Roads and Road Safety, Luke Donnellan, says, “We realise Towards Zero sets an ambitious target but unless we’re working towards the highest possible benchmark, Victorians will continue to lose loved ones to road trauma and we can never accept that.” Tragically, suicide deaths in Australia greatly exceed that of road deaths. In 2013 there were 1193 road fatalities compared with 2522 deaths due to suicide
Scotland offers us an example of a country that has run a successful suicide prevention program. The 2002 National Strategy and Action Plan to Prevent Suicide (Choose Life) set a target to reduce suicides in Scotland by 20 per cent by 2013. This would mean a reduction from an age-sex-standardised rate of 17.4 per 100,000 population in 2000-2002 to 13.9 per 100,000 population in 2011-2013. The Choose Life strategy has been particularly successful. Between 2000-02 and 2011-13, there has been an overall downward trend of 19.5 per cent in suicide rates.
The Scottish government’s Choose Life suicide prevention strategy brought individuals and organisations together from across Scotland to work in partnership to prevent suicide in innovative and effective ways.
Some of the measures implemented were
- The establishment of a Scottish Suicide Information Database, to record details of the circumstances of people who die by suicide, helping health professionals to better plan how to prevent it.
- The recruitment of Choose Life Co-ordinators to the majority of Scottish local authorities, helping to co-ordinate, plan and direct suicide prevention work tailored to local needs. In Scotland, people in the lowest social class who are living within the most deprived areas have a risk of suicide far greater than the general population.
- The establishment of a national leadership and co-ordination team. Their role was far ranging and included the development of relevant contextualised training materials; monitoring the distribution and delivery of the training and evaluating its effectiveness.
- Ensuring that at least half of all NHS frontline workers were trained in suicide prevention awareness by 2010. A greater emphasis was placed on understanding the impact of a suicide on communities and supporting people bereaved by suicide.
- The development of awareness-raising campaigns encouraging people to seek help if they are feeling suicidal, and offering support and advice for people worried about someone in that position
Labor’s response to suicide prevention in Australia includes some of the measures listed above. It is widely recognised that any strategy needs to include national and regional initiatives that encourage local, community-based solutions.
Labor’s policy is shaped by the Mental Health Commission review which was published in April 2015. It calls for
- Mandatory suicide awareness training for frontline police, emergency workers and teachers.
- More intensive follow-up care for everyone who’s released from a mental health ward.
- Extending the responsibility for preventing suicide beyond traditional mental health services.
I am heartened by the admission that people released from a mental health service require more intensive follow-up care. The period following discharge represents a high risk for suicide, something we were unaware of at a time our son Adam needed targeted coordinated support.
Professor Helen Christensen, director of the Black Dog Institute made the following observation.
“Current privacy laws mean family and carers are often not included in discharge arrangements or follow-up services and research shows that support from family and friends is integral to recovery from mental illness.”