As suicide numbers rise – UniSA calls for a national priority on prevention strategies

As the latest national data reveals suicide rates are on the rise, UniSA Chair in Mental Health Nursing, Professor Nicholas Procter says more needs to be done to address key drivers of suicide.

Prof Procter says in South Australia the age standardised suicide rate has jumped from 12.0 per 100,000 in 2018 to 13.9 per 100,000 in 2019, as recorded in the National Causes of Death data release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this week (Friday October 23).

“The research is there; we know a lot about key factors that both contribute to suicide or are indicators of vulnerability to suicide – financial distress, insecure housing, discrimination, childhood trauma, alcohol and drug abuse,” Prof Proctor says.

“These issues need to be given a higher priority at critical touch points within and beyond the health system if we are to turn around the suicide statistics.”

The 2019 data released this week – which does not reflect the impact of COVID-19 or the 2020 bushfires – shows a jump from 8.6 Australian lives lost from suicide every day, to 9.1 a day.

Suicide is the leading cause of death among people aged 15-49. Men are still three times more likely to die by suicide than women, accounting for 75.4 per cent of deaths by suicide (or 2,502 deaths), compared with women at 24.6 per cent (or 816 deaths).

This troubling trend for men has been consistent for the past 10 years. And for women, there is a correlation between previous self-harm in about one third of suicides.

While there is a slight downward trend in Aboriginal suicide rates in SA, nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain significantly impacted by suicide with the devastating statistic that in 2019 there were 195 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who died by suicide.

The rate of deaths by suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples over the past five years was 24.6 per 100,000 – compared to a rate of 12.5 for non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Children aged 15-17 years old account for an overwhelming majority of all suicides among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“It is time to ask the hard questions about the scope and direction of reform, are we investing resources and ‘know how’ in the right places, and how are we structuring supports and connecting that support to people who are most at risk,” Prof Procter says.

“This data was collected before the impact of the pandemic and we know the economic and social fall-out from COVID-19 will be with us for some time.

“As we slowly return to ‘COVID normal’ life, that return won’t operate equally across society and we know that for many people the hangover effects – unemployment and underemployment, relationship breakdown, depression and anxiety, insecure housing – will remain.

“This will mean re-thinking the measures we currently have in place and ensuring adequate investment in frontline services.

“Previous self-harm is a known risk factor for suicide. And these statistics show that previous self-harm was reported in more than one fifth (20.7 per cent) of all suicide deaths, and almost one-third (30.5 per cent) of female deaths by suicide.

“Specialist compassionate aftercare in the form of brief interventions following an episode of self-harm is essential. It can go a long way to supporting people and interrupting a possible return trajectory towards suicide in the future.”

Prof Procter says one key brief intervention is safety planning.

“Research undertaken by our team at UniSA has shown that safety planning is an important tool in this regard,” he says.

“Person-centered planning co-designed with the person at risk, and safety planning can be an effective means of helping people manage the onset or worsening of suicidal urges. Taking those steps, often with the support of others, helps to make their situation safer.”

Research from UniSA’s Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Research team has also shown that targeted suicide prevention education for frontline health workers does improve confidence and competence when assessing and responding to a person at risk of suicide.

“It is time to institute universal education for frontline workers across known touch points in health and other sectors.,” Prof Procter says.

/UniSA Release. The material in this public release comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. View in full here.