With new research showing suicidal behaviour could be up to three times higher than estimated in Australia, campaigners are calling on the government to appoint a minister to focus solely on the issue, as the UK has.
Content warning: This article contains references to suicide
Amber Cox still isn’t sure how it happened.
Late last year, the 26-year-old was keeping busy raising her family in the regional Western Australian town of Kojonup, 260km south of Perth.
She was getting by with the help of her partner, CJ, the father of two of her children.
“That was his main priority, his kids. He worked, he provided for his family no matter what,” she told SBS News.
But her life changed forever one day in October.
The couple had a fight, and Ms Cox left town for Perth.
“I was there for about a week. Then I got a phone call saying that CJ had committed suicide and that he was gone,” she said.
“I can’t even describe how I felt. I cried, I screamed, I yelled. I tried ringing his phone, I checked my messages to see … I don’t know, if he was online or something. Just looking for reasons that it wasn’t true.
“That phone call changed me; changed the way I look at life, changed the way I treat people. It changed everything.”
That phone call changed me; changed the way I look at life, changed the way I treat people. It changed everything.
- Amber Cox
The next few months were a kind of blur.
“I started drinking. I was always angry. The house that I was previously living in was smashed up. I cried for hours. I just lost it there for a bit”.
CJ had battled mental health issues.
“I knew that he struggled with anxiety and depression, I knew that, and I helped him. We did couples counselling, we did individual counselling,” Ms Cox said.
But looking back, she can’t remember any signs that would have led her to believe her partner was at risk of suicide.
“He would just message me the usual stuff that we usually argue about, nothing too serious [to suggest] he was going to take his own life. I didn’t see it at all,” she said.
“There was no indication ... I had no idea”.
More than a health issue
For many Australians, Ms Cox’s story is all too familiar.
In 2017, the most recent yearly figures published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 3,128 people died from intentional self-harm.
National suicide figures show on average, six men take their lives in Australia each day. But new research released on Wednesday found suicidal behaviour could be up to three times higher than some estimates.
Six men take their lives in Australia each day.
The Beyond the Emergency study by Turning Point and Monash University found there were 30,197 ambulance attendances for men who had thoughts of suicide or had attempted suicide in the year from July 2015 – around 82 attendances a day.
For Indigenous Australians like Ms Cox and CJ, and those in Western Australia, the rates are especially high.
Estimates from the National Critical Response Trauma Recovery Project say 75 suicides among Indigenous Australians have already occured in 2019, and there are fears it could pass 200 by the end of the year.
In 2017, 165 Indigenous Australians died by suicide, according to the latest data available from the ABS.
They are disturbing trends that prompted the Federal Government to commit $461 million to suicide prevention initiatives in the 2019-20 Budget.
But the peak body for suicide prevention in Australia has urged the Prime Minister to go one step further, and appoint a minister for suicide prevention.
The move would follow the United Kingdom, which appointed a dedicated minister in 2018.
Jackie Doyle-Price was hired by Prime Minister Theresa May to bring together a ministerial taskforce and work with experts in the field to tackle the stigma around suicide.
She has promised to ensure at-risk children are treated within four weeks and take on social media companies about their part in prevention.
Currently, in Australia, the responsibility for suicide prevention belongs to the Minister for Health Greg Hunt.
Suicide Prevention Australia CEO Nieves Murray said changing “government policy architecture” is essential to address the social, economic, health, occupational, cultural and environmental factors involved in suicide prevention.
“Suicide prevention is complex and it needs to be addressed as a whole-of-government issue because it’s more than a health issue,” she said.
Rising rates of suicide
The appointment of a Minister for Suicide Prevention has the support of some mental health workers across the country.
Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and program coordinator based in Western Australia.
He said a dedicated minister for suicide prevention would help focus resources and attention on the issue, as well as identify programs that are proven to work.
“[The government] needs to own it, they need to own this issue as they do a minister for health, a minister for education or a minister for employment. It’s the only way to systemic change.”
Mr Georgatos has spent years working closely with Aboriginal families impacted by the trauma of suicide.
“One in every 50 deaths across Australia is a suicide, and that’s staggering. But one in every 17 deaths among Indigenous people is a suicide,” he said.
“One in 17, and that could be underreported.
“There’s a permanency of the trend increasing every year. Since the start of this century, the suicide toll has gone up on the preceding year without fail.”
One in every 50 deaths across Australia is a suicide. But one in every 17 among Indigenous people is a suicide.
- Gerry Georgatos, Researcher
“Suicide in Australia is at a higher rate of loss than the UK, which dedicated a suicide prevention minister last year,” Mr Georgatos said.
“They’ve got close to 5,000 completed suicides per annum, we’ve got more than 3,000 per annum, and we’re a much smaller population.”
The way forward
But while all suicide prevention workers are united in the view that urgent action is needed, not all are convinced that appointing another government minister is the best way to address the problem.
Pearl Proud is the Clinical Lead of headspace Armadale in Western Australia and contributes to policy development at a state and federal level.
She said there would be a risk of ‘doubling-up’ on services, if the UK model were adopted in Australia.
“We have a ministerial council into suicide prevention in [Western Australia], we also have dedicated councils across the country that inform decision makers and particular ministers.”
“If we were to have a dedicated Minister for Suicide Prevention, that minister would have to work very closely with the Minister for Health. That would mean we now have two people in the space looking at things that are interrelated”.
Ms Proud has spent parts of her career working with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, including refugees and asylum seekers.
She said that along with Indigenous Australians, existing government processes could better serve multicultural communities.
“Generally speaking, suicide for CALD communities tends to match the suicide rates of their home countries. It takes many years to adjust to a new home country, and during that time those people carry an additional burden.
“So for us who are offering clinical support, there’s an awareness that we need to have when we’re delivering services to people who are of a CALD background.
“We have to be aware that their understanding of mental health and what they feel constitutes wellness, is different to how we might conceptualise it in Australia.”
Ms Proud said better evaluation is needed to ensure governments are listening to the advice of suicide prevention workers.
"A lot of this is to do with the work that happens outside of the departments, and we always need to be looking at how that is integrated into the overall decision making and policy and budgets.”
And while Ms Proud is not opposed to the idea of an Australian minister for suicide prevention, she would like to see better implementation by government of the mental health sector’s recommendations, whichever minister has the responsibility.
“We have a high rate of suicides in Australia. We have been throwing a lot of resources into the space and the suicide rate has been quite resistant to the efforts that we’ve been making,” she said.
or a local Aboriginal Health Service. There are resources for young people at Headspace Yarn Safe. Indigenous Australian psychologist services can be found here.
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or a local Aboriginal Health Service, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (up to age 25). There are resources for young people at Headspace Yarn Safe. Indigenous Australian psychologist services can be found here. More information about mental health is available at Beyond Blue.