Suicide

1 December 2020

COVID-19 has claimed the lives of over 900 Australians this year. Each of these lives has been a tragic loss, one that has deeply affected families and communities. Governments have mobilised to prevent that number growing, which has been an appropriate and necessary response. But it also raises the question of whether we should be doing more to prevent deaths from other causes; 3,318 Australian lives were lost to suicide last year. Over the past decade almost 30,000 lives have been lost to suicide. That is absolutely a national tragedy. It is even more tragic that so many Australians who are lost to suicide are young people. Too many of our children go through school and lose one of their peers, one of their friends, along the way. They will carry the loss for the rest of their lives. But it is not just young people. Half of Australians who are lost to suicide are aged 25 to 49. It is crushing to see that so many Australians are struggling with depression, with trauma and with mental illness to the point that they decide they cannot go on.

The Productivity Commission has undertaken a two-year inquiry into mental health, and the government recently released its 1,200-page report, which makes for very grim reading. The report estimated that there were 30,000 to 90,000 suicide attempts in 2018 alone. Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people and disproportionately affects Indigenous Australians, males, those living in regional areas and those with mental illness. The report estimates the economic cost of mental illness and suicide to be $600 million per day.

Despite government's significant spending on mental health, there is little evidence that things are improving. The report is clear: we can do better; we must do better. The report recommends a national mental health and suicide prevention strategy to align governments, agencies and other groups. It also recommends transparent evaluation of prevention strategies so we can better understand what works and, just as importantly, what doesn't work. It recommends that aftercare be offered to anyone who presents to a health provider after a suicide attempt. There are many stories of people being turned away from emergency departments after acts of self-harm. Ensuring that they have the appropriate support is vital to preventing future suicide attempts. Putting health workers into emergency departments will let people get the help they need when they need it.

Although it has had access to the report since June, the government is yet to publish its response. This report should be an absolute priority. The delay is a reminder of why Australia should have a minister for mental health. Several state governments have made mental health a ministerial responsibility. The Prime Minister should consider making it a responsibility of the federal ministry as well, because 3,318 were lost to suicide last year. Just let that sink in: 3,318 have been lost to suicide. That is too many. Our existing policies are not working, but now we have a road map for reform. I hope, and I expect, that the government will act on this report and we will see a comprehensive response soon, followed by legislation and budget initiatives in the new year. The time for change has well and truly arrived.

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