Suicide rates among young Australians are at their highest level in 10 years, despite a range of prevention strategies and investment from government, according to new research.
The report, carried out by youth mental health service Orygen, has found the system is not working and a new suicide prevention strategy for young people is needed.
Jo Robinson, head of Orygen’s suicide prevention research, said of the current system: “We’re clearly not getting things right.
“We really lack national leadership when it comes to youth suicide prevention.
“So despite a lot of investment, despite a lot of talk at government level … we really need a reinvigorated approach to youth suicide prevention.”
The report highlighted that although suicide rates among young men were still higher than women, female suicide rates had doubled over the past 10 years.
It also found youth suicides were twice as likely to happen in clusters than adult suicides and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth and youth in regional and remote Australia were most at risk.
In one cluster that was identified, 21 young people had taken their lives in a remote town in central Queensland between 2010 and 2012.
Fifteen young people died by suicide in a remote northern West Australian town in the same period.
“We need to be very mindful that when there has been a suicide death by a young person, those young people around the death will be vulnerable to suicide going forward,” Dr Robinson said.
She said it was not necessarily an increase in funding that was needed, but rather there a refocusing of where the money was going.
The Brain and Mind Centre’s Professor Ian Hickie agreed, saying there had been a big focus on reducing suicide rates in 1990s at a time when they were at all-time highs, almost double the current youth suicide rate.
“In some ways that success had been taken for granted,” he said.
No warning signs — ‘He seemed OK’
Lisa’s son Elliot took his life on the final day of Year 12, one week before his final exams.
The high-achieving school captain was just days away from turning 18, and had shown no warning signs that he was struggling to cope.
“We knew he was a bit anxious but we had no idea it was crippling anxiety and should have been medicated, but he didn’t tell us,” she said.
“Things seemed OK. So really it came out of the blue.
“He obviously wasn’t resilient enough. We thought we’d raised resilient children and obviously he wasn’t.”
She said anything that could be done to prevent more young people losing their lives had to be put in place.
“It’s human to have all these emotions and it just shouldn’t be that people don’t feel safe enough or secure enough to be able to share what’s wrong with them,” she said.
Young people being turned away from help
The report calls for a national suicide prevention strategy, supported by a specific youth suicide prevention strategy.
It also found more mental health services were needed for young people who were at high risk of suicide.
“We know that there are tens of thousands of young people who are turned away from services every year because services don’t have the capacity to respond to them,” Dr Robinson said.
“Unfortunately, very tragically, some of those young people will go on to take their own lives.”
Better use of technology
The report also highlighted the role technology could play to prevent suicide and called for better online platforms, such as web-based counselling services, that could help people at risk of suicide.
Dr Robinson said online tools were highly acceptable to young people and the evidence showed they were working.
“Governments have been very cautious about this. In suicide prevention they talk about the potential harms that online platforms can do or can offer,” he said.
“While those concerns shouldn’t be taken lightly, we also think it’s time we looked at some of the opportunities that online platforms provide.
Professor Ian Hickie said despite new online technology being blamed for increased bullying and suicide risks, the data showed the reverse.
“When technology is used appropriately to connect and support young people, actually suicidal behaviour and mental health problems go down, not up,” he said.
“And that may be part of the reason why in fact rates have been lower in this part of this century, then they were in the 1990s.
The rise in suicide rates has also been mirrored by a rise in self-harm, according to the report, with hospitalisations for self-poisoning among women spiking in recent years.
Dr Robinson said the issue was not being taken seriously by the community and health services.
“We know one of the myths around self-harm is that young people who engage in self-harm are really attention-seeking and what we would say is that is absolutely not the case,” she said.
She said young people who self-harmed had reported being pepper-sprayed by emergency services, being sutured without pain relief and had received negative responses from health services.
“Self-harm in young people is often a risk factor for future suicide,” Dr Robinson said.
“The behaviour needs to be taken seriously.”