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Statistics - only part of the story

28 September 2016 Rev Keith Garner's Blog

Amidst the flurry of public interest in our sporting grand finals this weekend, it would be easy to simply overlook some far more important numbers that speak louder into the heart and soul of our nation than team stats and profiles.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics released its annual report on causes of death this week showing that death by suicide has significantly increased. It’s risen from 2861 in 2014 to 3027 in 2015. These figures concern me and my team at Wesley Mission.

The standardised death rate in 2015 was 12.6 deaths per 100,000 people; up from 12.0 in 2014. Deaths from intentional self-harm occurred among males at a rate three times greater than that for females.

In 2015, suicide was the leading cause of death among all people 15-44 years of age, and the second leading cause of death among those 45-54 years of age. The highest proportion of suicide deaths of men happens among those aged 40-44 years.

On the face of it the statistics paint a disturbing picture. From past experience there will be multiple calls from all quarters to set targets to reduce suicide. 

Setting targets is one thing but the impact of just one death is enormous. I suggest that the loss of a loved one is a form of grief which has no peer with up to 17 people directly impacted by one death. We must never lose sight of the fact that every life matters.

Suicide StatsGrief associated with suicide is complex and very difficult. It is a particularly punishing type of grief. Family members and friends can feel abandoned or rejected. A myriad of questions often remain unanswered following a suicide and unfortunately stigma remains. 

In the frantic rush to find causes for the latest increase in suicide rates we may also lose sight of two things: firstly we now have better measures around the reporting of suicide: what may not have been determined as suicide in the past is now measured. Secondly, it’s important to remember that without the matrix of existing community and health services the numbers would be even higher. 

Prior to the last Federal election calls we and many others made for both major parties to give clear commitments to fund suicide prevention and mental health services. The nation demands a better long-term plan for both. So much of the discussion and planning has been ad-hoc and piecemeal.

Government funding lurches from one year to another with no security of tenure for providers, their clients or staff. The road safety lobby wouldn’t stand for such uncertainty if the funding for their campaigns were dealt a similar hand. Yet it’s now blatantly obvious that almost twice as many people die from suicide each year than die on our roads.

Just two weeks ago at our Memorial Service at the Opera House I listened to stories of grief from families who have lost loved ones and are left with the recurring question of ‘why?’ Communities are crying out for support but simply don’t know where to get help.

Part of the solution has been the creation of community based suicide prevention networks. Wesley Mission supports 66 networks across the nation and has provided suicide prevention training to over 30,000 Australians. As you are twice as likely if you are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander to die by suicide than non-Indigenous people, our work in the Northern Territory has been especially important.

The community networks adopt a whole of community approach engaging people from areas such as community services, health and allied health services, mental health, education and emergency services and policing. They are cost effective and work at local solutions with local people.

Network members get training on recognising the signs of a person considering suicide or self–harm. The training moves people from a conversation to action – where to seek appropriate professional help, support and counsel for those struggling with suicide ideation or mental health issues.

The networks also identify issues in the community that can contribute to suicide ideation or self-harm. They can also advocate for resources or for the creation of specialist services for different groups.

Too much past debate about the delivery of suicide prevention services has been focussed upon the funding priority of mental health and psychiatric over community based strategies. Clinical solutions don’t work on their own. Community prevention and early intervention is vital.

Suicide prevention can never be seen through the vista of one passionate voice or one objective solution. The reality for people on the ground is that it is not a matter of one or the other. Community based suicide prevention services and mental health services must work hand in hand. It’s my belief that we must operate together in a whole of community, mutual and integrated way.