‘Towards Zero’ Target for Suicide Rates in Australia

Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has appointed Christine Morgan, CEO of the National Mental Health Commission, as the national suicide prevention advisor to the prime minister.

Morrison said “suicide takes far too many Australians, devastating families and local communities. One life lost to suicide is one too many, which is why my Government is working towards a zero suicide goal.”

“One life lost to suicide is one too many.”

Scott Morrison, Prime Minister of Australia

This has the support of Health Minister, Greg Hunt, who said, “the only ‘acceptable’ target for reducing the number of suicides in Australia is to aim for none at all.”

There is widespread support for setting targets as it galvanises society around focussing on what it can do to address this problem. Reducing suicide rates is not something any government can achieve on its own. It requires a whole-of-society response.

Christine Morgan acknowledges the huge task ahead of her but has a clear focus. She says, “the keyword in the government’s ‘towards zero’ slogan, for now, is ‘towards’.”

The number of suicides in Australia has been rising in the last decade, with 3,128 Australians taking their life in 2017, according to the latest available ABS figures. This is a figure Ms Morgan regards as ‘far too high.’

Ms Morgan has been touring the country, listening to Australians from all walks of life talk about their experiences with self-harm and suicide. She readily admits it is not easy to understand what drives people to a point where they have lost all hope. Nonetheless, she has made some telling observations.

(1) Suicide isn’t just a mental health problem

Ms Morgan argues for a more wholistic view when determining the causes of suicide. She says,

“Mental health problems alone aren’t driving people to consider taking their own lives.”

She suggests that homelessness, unemployment, financial stressors, chronic pain, and experiences of trauma, all contribute to suicide rates.

Pete Shmigel, CEO of Lifeline has come to a similar conclusion. He recognises that suicide is as much a social problem as it is a mental health problem. He says,

“Lifeline receives almost a million requests for help each year. We know that struggles with life’s challenges, such as loneliness, relationship breakdown and unemployment – not only mental health issues – are key reasons behind suicidal behaviour.”

Researchers have found that half of the people that die by suicide in this country either don’t actually have a mental illness or previous contact with the mental health ­system.

There are many vulnerable groups in Australia where the risk of suicide is greater. These include Indigenous Australians, young people, the unemployed, veterans, tradies and farmers.

Let us reflect for a moment on the unique challenges faced by Australian farmers.

New research on male suicide amongst Australian farmers has found that around 4 out of 5 (78%) of suicides studied were linked to situational distress with 1 in 5 (22%) characterised by longstanding mental health issues.

The Study by the Australian Institute of Suicide Research and Prevention found that the two most common situational factors that male farmers who died by suicide were dealing with were relationship issues and financial issues.

Relationship Breakdown

There are many reasons why relationships fail. Trust issues, communication difficulties, changing expectations and external pressures are just some of the factors that lead to relationship breakdown.

When farmers experience a separation or divorce they are placed under additional stress. Feelings of anger and shame are common. They often resort to alcohol and drugs as a way of coping. Invariably, they pull back from social exchanges and become increasingly isolated. There is a reluctance to share their personal struggles, prefering to tough it out.

Financial Burden

Hard times are unavoidable for farming communities. They may be caused by extreme climate events, economic pressures, changing farming practices, and market volatility.

Financial pressures on working farms are a constant. With the value of production often in decline, farmers are forced to contemplate strategies to survive. Part of the equation is weighing up the viability of their operations. The mental stress associated with unsustainable practices impairs judgment and leads to poor decision making.

Elevated rates of suicide amongst farmers are linked to their failure to resolve the financial challenges and make the business profitable. The burden of responsibility is even more pronounced where the farm has been in the family for generations.

Suicide prevention strategies in rural communities must look beyond medical interventions. Farmers doing it tough will understandably benefit from access to mental health practioners. But they also require the imput of financial advisors, industry experts and land management consultants. Practical assistance is a premium. Peer support and relief packages will address some of the more pressing concerns.

Not every issue we face in life has a medical solution. There is no medical cure for economic hardship or social isolation.

The stark reality is this: Half of the people that die by suicide in this country either don’t actually have a mental illness or previous contact with the mental health ­system.

(2) Solutions need to be community focussed

Christine Morgan talked with Michelle Grattan recently about the priorities of a national strategy to reduce the number of suicides.

Ms Morgan believes there has to be co-ownership. A society wide problem needs a society wide solution. Suicide is not a problem that only medical practitioners and mental health professionals can solve.

A society wide problem needs a society wide solution.

Ms Morgan stresses the important role communities can play in providing support to vulnerable people.

The term ‘community’ refers to a group of people that have developed relationships around a strong common interest. It may be work-related, educational, social, cultural, sporting, faith-based or family centred. The strength of any community is determined by the nature and quality of the relationships. A positive community environment benefits everyone. Being surrounded by a healthy and constructive community can help people to face their problems and tackle them head-on.

The challenge faced by any community committed to supporting one another is to create an environment where people want to seek help and will not feel stigmatised by doing so.

But this is a significant challenge. Let us consider the lived experience of construction workers.

Construction workers are twice as likely to take their lives than men in other jobs and six times more likely to die by suicide than a workplace accident.

Melbourne electrician, Chris Patterson, has lost two close friends to suicide. Chris says the construction industry is defined by long hours, intermittent jobs and financial pressures.

Chris travels to work sites around Melbourne where he talks guys through the toughest of times and lends an ear for support. He says,

“The only thing we can do is spread the message that there is hope and encourage guys to talk.”

David Broadhurst runs regular talks through his organisation Braveheart which equip tradies with tools and education they need to keep themselves mentally and physically well. David has battled his own mental illness and is well qualified to offer support. He says,

“We get taught to be really good at our trade but there’s no one to coach us how to do life well.”

Let’s hope Ms Morgan’s report to parliament on how to reduce the number of suicides nationally will offer a clear and defined way forward.

A comprehensive approach to suicide prevention will address the social, economic, health, occupational, cultural and environmental factors involved; it will equip communities to develop purposeful and practical suicide prevention plans; it will mobilise individuals to reach out to people struggling with the stress of life.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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