If nothing changes, suicides in Australia will continue to climb

07 October 2019 Consultancy.com.au 4 min. read
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If the status quo is maintained across Australia’s social and healthcare systems, suicides in the country are likely to increase to around 3,800 or more deaths per year over the coming decade leading up to 2030. A new report by Suicide Prevention Australia (SPA) and KPMG has stressed the importance of an integrated approach to solving this problem.

Suicide numbers in Australia, among other regions in the world, demonstrate a worrying trend recently. The last five decades have seen a gradual decrease – in overall terms – of suicide rates, although there have been significant spikes and dips in the numbers along the way. This is according to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

Following a substantial increase in suicides in the 1990s, the early 2000s marked a remarkable improvement in the scenario, with suicide rates in 2006 reaching the lowest point in 50 years. When measured per hundred thousand people, suicide rates across Australia were down to just over 10 in 2006.

Age standardised suicide rates

Since the turn of the decade, however, conditions have steadily worsened. Not accounting for fluctuations, the cumulative suicide rates have increased since 2010, reaching 12.5 per 100,000 in 2017. Rates in 2017 were similar to those in the 1970s, and the upward trend has been a general cause for worry.

SPA is a national suicide prevention body that has been operating in Australia for more than two and a half decades, looking to initiate suicide prevention programmes and other efforts to reduce rates. The organisation has worked with Big Four accounting and advisory firm KPMG to analyse the AIHW numbers and call for action to stop the situation from worsening.

SPA’s focus is on driving integrated efforts. “We’re committed to driving continual improvement in suicide prevention policy, programs, and services to achieve better outcomes for all Australians. Our reach is broad, and includes the views of member organisations, governments, businesses, researchers and practitioners,” writes SPA in the latest report.

scenario analysis of annual suicides

The report details the broad range of factors that contribute to suicide, and the variety of actors that must be involved in prevention. Mental illness is the most common scapegoat when it comes to understanding suicide, although research from across the globe has shown that restricting efforts to mental health has been limited in its ability to prevent suicide. 

“In 2017, ABS data found that 20% of deaths by suicide did not mention any co-morbidities, such as mood disorders or chronic pain, as a contributing factor,’ states the report. More real and actionable contributing factors include financial distress (particularly high debt levels), job loss and consequent increases in alcoholism and drug abuse. In 2017, 41.6% of deaths by suicide in the 25-44 year age group involved people with drug and alcohol use disorders and acute intoxication,” states the report.

Other contributing factors include stressful work environments, which induce feeling of hopelessness and stress. Factors become more nuanced when these individual conditions are more closely examined. For example, the nature of employment, the size of a business, or even the gender of an individual can alter the nature of factors that induce suicidal behaviour.

Suicide deaths by age group in Australia (1967-2017)Some efforts towards reducing workplace pressure are visible in the business environment, such as greater flexibility of working hours and more leave time. However, the report is emphatic in its constant reiteration that none of these factors in isolation can drive someone to suicide. The combination of these conditions – distributed across the private, professional, social and economic domains – exert a cumulative pressure that individuals often cannot cope with.

Consequently, the report calls for governments and other stakeholders to re-examine their perceptions of suicide as an issue, and subsequently alter the nature of their interventions. More holistic and cross-sectoral initiatives are required to help reduce the plethora of risk factors that exist in society.