Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44 years old, according to figures released Wednesday by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
Our reputation as a country full of laid-back surfers masks a serious mental health problem: suicide rates are at a 10-year high with someone taking their own life every three hours. Lifeline Australia CEO Pete Shmigel is calling it a national suicide emergency, and urging the government to take action.
The figures come just days after a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl was found dead in Looma, a remote bush community more than 3,000 km north of Perth. Her death was the 19th suicide by an Aboriginal person in that state since December. "Usually, we have about 30 to 40 suicides by Aboriginal people each year in WA," suicide researcher Gerry Georgatos told the ABC. "We are already about halfway there by this point in the year."
Georgatos will travel Looma to provide support to that community, as part of the federal government's $1 million critical response project, announced in January. The project is an attempt to stem Indigenous suicide in WA—which faces the country's highest rates—by flying mental health workers into remote communities.
Beyond Indigenous suicide, men aged between 40 and 44 years old were the biggest contributors to this year's increase. Mental health commissioner Ian Hickie explained these men have carried depression through from their adolescence in the 1990s. "Youth suicide hit its peak in the 1990s and men suffering from unaddressed depression and mental health problems then are having that exacerbated by problems they face as they enter middle age, leading some to suicide," Hickie told The Guardian.
On the whole, men remain around three times more likely to die from intentional self harm than women. However, young women have emerged in these numbers as a particularly at-risk group. The suicide rate for those between 15 and 24 years old jumped by 50 percent between 2005 and 2014.
Chart courtesy of Fairfax Media
Mental health advocate Minto Felix, a founder of Australians for Mental Health, told VICE these figures came as no surprise. While the last 10 years have seen a concerted effort to grow awareness of the issue of suicide in Australia, he said there has been very little done in tangibly increasing suicide intervention. "There's a pittance allocated to suicide intervention," he said.
"What's stressful to me is that the numbers have been consistently and extraordinarily high for 20 years," he said. "Our mental health system is broken. Even the reforms last year were nowhere near far enough to give people what they need when and where they need it."
Specifically, Felix wants to see increased funding of suicide intervention. This can be something as simple as identifying places with high incidences of suicide and erecting barriers, such as fences. Research has found restricting access to these danger zones can reduce suicides by 91 percent every year.
Another key measure would be investing more in mental health training for schools. "50 percent of people with an anxiety disorder will develop it before age 18," Felix says. "What if every teacher in every school was taught mental health first aid? Can you imagine the impact that could have?"
Felix explains that while Australia has some of the world's leading mental health researchers, research trials are being done on such a small scale it just isn't having any impact. "Suicide is a public health crisis," he says. "We aren't doing enough."
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