Please note - Some may find the content in this article distressting or triggering. For support or information call: Lifeline 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467, Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, MensLine 1300 78 99 78.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest official data on suicide deaths this week. The data is devastating. Suicide rates in this country are going up. In 2014, there were a total of 2 864 registered suicides – 2160 males and 704 females. This is an increase of 342 deaths of the previous year. This translates to 12 suicide deaths per 100 000 population. It is nearly 8 suicide deaths per day. 1 suicide death every three hours. Like I said, devastating. Devastatingly tragic.
And in particular populations the news is even more tragic. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the suicide rates are among the highest in the world. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males and females suicide at more than double the rate of non-Aboriginal males and females. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples between the ages of 15 to 35, where it accounts for 1 in 3 deaths. For males aged 15 to 19 year old the suicide rate is 38 per 100 000, and for females it is 16 per 100 000.
Behind all these numbers are people. And tragic stories of trauma and heartache for mums and dads, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, friends, colleagues, loved ones and entire communities. To anyone who lost someone to suicide in this year, or who has ever known someone who became a suicide statistic, I am so incredibly sorry and sad for your loss. I cannot begin to imagine the complexity and intensity of your grief.
The question – why does somebody take their own life? – is so incredibly complicated and for many people may never be fully resolved. The thing is that there is a lot about suicide that we still don’t fully understand.
The factors associated with suicide are so varied and complex and it can be extremely difficult even for experienced professionals to know who might be at a high risk of attempting suicide. Clinical psychologist, Edwin Shneidman (1996) described several common characteristics of suicide, including a sense of unbearable psychological pain, a sense of isolation from others, and the perception that death is the only solution when the individual is temporarily not able to think clearly due to being blinded by overwhelming pain.
My first experience, as a psychology intern assessing a client for current risk of suicide was a really terrifying moment. And I think I have written on this before, but the really scary thing about it was being able to be present with the client and see the amount of psychological pain they were in. I could empathise with them that suicide did seem like a possible solution. And it was scary. It became difficult to carry hope. But what I did have was the ability to think clearly and rationally. I wasn’t blinded by the overwhelming pain, and despite my terror and lack of experience at the time, we were able to put appropriate plans and structures in place to keep this client safe until this feeling passed.
Interestingly, when I myself first experienced feelings of suicidality, ‘terrifying’ isn’t the main adjective I would use to describe it. Mostly, I felt completely overwhelmed with hopelessness, helplessness and loneliness. It was incredibly painful, and if future Sam could tell past Sam any rational advice at that time, it would most probably be “This too, shall pass.” Would I have believed it at the time? Not a chance. But it turned out to be true.
Thoughts of ending one’s own life can be terrifying, the reasons behind them complex and multi-faceted. But we know that there are things that can be done to help people who are feeling this way, to help them with the pain until it passes and to manage it should these feelings present themselves again in the future.
As a result of the devastating data and the facts we do know about suicide, wonderful organisations are making pledges and loud noises. Lifeline has called on the government to double funding to suicide prevention. Sane Australia CEO says we “need to redouble our efforts to prevent suicide at a national, state and local level.” The Black Dog Institute is currently conducting regional trials into how new technology can be used to coordinate health services and prevention efforts in vulnerable populations. And Suicide Prevention Australia has worked towards forming a National Coalition for Suicide Prevention, made up of individuals, organisations, government and business people who have agreed to work collaboratively towards reducing deaths by suicide by half in ten years.
This is all really, really excellent stuff. And massive, massive kudos to all these groups that do great work, that will continue to have a mammoth impact.
But I think more needs to be done if we really want these stats to start going in the opposite direction. And it wouldn’t be that hard. Rather than just rely on the hard work of big organisations or groups, imagine the impact if each individual made one small pledge for the year to help prevent suicide.
They wouldn’t need to be massive big goals. At an individual level, there are so many things you could do that could have an effect on reducing suicide rates. For example, individual pledges could include:
- Asking someone “R U OK?” on any day of the year, if you are worried about their current state.
- Educating yourself on how to respond to someone who might tell you they’re not all that okay and they are feeling suicidal.
- Making an effort to be kind to those around you because you just don’t know what sort of battle they might just be fighting.
- Enrolling in a cultural awareness course to further your knowledge and understanding of the effects of history and intergenerational trauma that our Aboriginal people live with today.
- Sharing with others your own lived experience with mental illness or suicidal ideation to let people know that there is hope.
- Prioritising your connections and relationships with your loved ones so that should they experience distress, they may feel comfortable in speaking up about it to you.
- Looking after our own psychological health so that if required you are emotionally robust and able to support someone else.
If everyone, or even half of everyone, made one personal pledge or action in an attempt to bring the data down over the next couple of years I really think we’d see visible results. Suicide is a human issue and a human experience. It requires a human response.