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Spirituality is key in suicide prevention

PM’s adviser explains how Australia can work “towards a zero suicide goal”

As Christine Morgan, the Prime Minister’s national suicide prevention adviser, tries to identify what more the federal government can do to save lives across Australia, she is hearing a strong call for services to consider spirituality when supporting someone with mental ill health.

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“In terms of spirituality, it’s really interesting as I travel the country and consult with communities, particularly our indigenous communities, about mental health and wellbeing,” Morgan tells Eternity.

“Taking care of yourself overall includes taking care of that spiritual component.” – Christine Morgan

“There is a strong call for recognition that as human beings we have a visible component, we have a mental health component and we have a spiritual component, whatever that may mean for people.

“And to be truly well is to be truly integrated across all three of those components – our physical wellbeing, our mental wellbeing and our spiritual wellbeing.”

She believes it’s important to recognise “that we’ve been created in a way which has a physical component, a mental component, and a spiritual component. I think that is a starting point for many people to even stop and recognise that within themselves – and to acknowledge and understand that taking care of yourself overall includes taking care of that spiritual component.”

With Morgan’s appointment last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared suicide prevention a key priority for his government, after record funds of $500 million were pledged in the pre-election budget.

“Suicide takes far too many Australians, devastating families and local communities,” Morrison said then.

“One life lost to suicide is one too many, which is why my government is working towards a zero suicide goal.”

“What we want very consciously is to drive towards zero because absolutely every Australian life is worthwhile.” – Christine Morgan

Acknowledging that that may be an overpromise, Morgan says nobody is saying suicide can be brought down to zero. Instead, the target is carefully phrased as being towards zero.

“We’re not saying zero, we’re saying towards zero for two reasons. One, it means we keep on driving that target down [and two] because we value every life of every Australian. But if you set a 20 per cent reduction, or 50 per cent reduction, it’s sort of like set in a certain place.”

“What we want very consciously is to drive towards zero because absolutely every Australian life is worthwhile and that’s where our focus is.”

According to the latest available data, 3128 Australians committed suicide in 2017. This represents a steady increase over the past decade, despite almost $5 billion per year spent on mental health services.

Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people.

A former corporate lawyer, Morgan left the commercial sphere 15 years ago to become general manager of Wesley Mission, then spent a decade at eating disorder organisation The Butterfly Foundation. In her new role – which is an add-on to her her full-time job as National Mental Health Commission CEO – Morgan is doing an assessment of existing suicide prevention strategies and identifying any gaps and failings.

She says the timeline is tight because she is expected to report to the PM by November on steps the government can take immediately to improve the coordination and delivery of suicide prevention activities.

An interim report is due by July 2020 with a final report by December 2020.

In assessing the gaps in delivery and coordination of suicide prevention plans, Morgan says Australia already is a world leader in initiatives of early intervention for those identified as at risk through the mental health and health portfolios.

“It’s not always mental health issues that will drive somebody to attempt suicide or die by suicide – that’s the very issue we’re looking at.” – Christine Morgan

However, she also sees value in trying to stop people getting to a place where they need specific intervention.

She points out that a majority of people – about 60 per cent – who die by suicide or attempt suicide have not previously come into contact with the health system.

“When you look at that broader number, it’s not always mental health issues that will drive somebody to attempt suicide or die by suicide – that’s the very issue we’re looking at,” says Morgan.

“So your starting point really is to say that anybody who attempt suicide is in a position of real despair, they’ve lost hope.”

“It’s almost impossible to think of being homeless without thinking that’s going to have an impact on your mental wellbeing.” – Christine Morgan

Morgan sees value in looking more broadly at areas such as homelessness, employment, education, the role of trauma in somebody’s life, and somebody in out-of-home care such as foster children (who are known to have a high risk of self-harm).

“Let’s look at how some of those things which have been called social determinants really do impact on people and whether or not they’re going to end up in that really black hole of despair, which is the common factor, I think, of anyone who attempts suicide.

“It’s almost impossible to think of being homeless without thinking that’s going to have an impact on your mental wellbeing.

“If you’re looking at unemployment … it is possible to see that that could be a pathway that could lead you to be totally despairing.” – Christine Morgan

“So there’s many factors that can cause somebody to lead to a position of a feeling of despair. We’re all individuals and things impact on us all differently but it is very fair to say that if you’re looking at unemployment – and long-term unemployment – and that is something that is causing you to be depressed and unwell, then, yes, it is possible to see that that could be a pathway that could lead you to be totally despairing.”

“That’s not going to be the case for everyone, but we can certainly say that is not something promoting mental health, wellbeing, happiness, engagement and connection in life.”

As a result, Morgan is looking at what happens when issues such as “participation in life, particularly in employment, economic stability, housing stability, food security” are not well addressed.

Another big factor, Morgan believes, is social isolation. Churches and other community organisations can have a key role to play in providing “a place in their community where people can feel safe, warm, welcome and connected.”

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