World Suicide Prevention Day: silver linings and a new program for seniors

Record numbers of Australians are heeding the call to seek help from suicide prevention services, according to a new report released today for World Suicide Prevention Day.

Suicide Prevention Australia CEO Nieves Murray said young people were seeking help at twice the rate of their parents’ generations, following decades of awareness-raising, stigma reduction initiatives and advocacy.

“Creating hope through action is an important part of World Suicide Prevention Day and every other day of the year,” Murray said.  

The report’s “silver lining” shows the sector is making a major contribution to keeping the community safe.

Suicide Prevention Australia released on Friday its second annual State of the Nation in Suicide Prevention report, which shows 84 per cent of suicide prevention services and workers experienced an increase in demand in the past 12 months (August 2020 to August 2021). This is an increase on the same period last year, in which 78 per cent of services and workers reported a rise. 

 The report’s “silver lining” shows the sector is making a major contribution to keeping the community safe, with 27 per cent of all Australians reporting they had taken action to seek help from a suicide prevention service.

Over the same 12-month period, 29 per cent of Australians reported they discussed suicide concerns about themselves or with someone else. This includes young people aged 18 to 34 years; 40 per cent of this age group reported having conversations about suicide, while 41 per cent reported seeking help – with both percentages twice the rate of their parents’ generation.

Murray said the increase in service demand showed Australians were hearing the message and seeking help. However, she noted it was important the “Herculean” efforts of many suicide prevention services during the pandemic not overshadow the great strain on the sector, both professionally and personally.

“We need to listen and respond to the voice of people with lived and living experience of suicide,” Murray said. “Every life lost to suicide is heartbreaking. It’s important to remember that every statistic represents a life lost and a cascade of grief amongst family, friends, schools, workplaces and community groups.”

“Physical distancing does not mean emotional and social distancing.” – Nieves Murray

The CEO reminded Australians that “physical distancing does not mean emotional and social distancing,” adding it was important that loved ones and communities remain emotionally and socially connected.

“You do not have to go this alone. Help is always available no matter who you are or what situation you are in. If you are feeling distress, please reach out and access the various support services that are available,” she said.

While there are positives to take from this year’s report, it also articulates key areas where improvement is needed.

One is the need for a more holistic national response to the problem of suicide, such as a national Suicide Prevention Act.

Murray said the suicide prevention sector is “highly collaborative” with “75 per cent of respondents working in partnership with government or other organisations.” Currently, 95 per cent of these service providers and workers are united in urging the Australian government to implement a national approach.

Another area identified for improvement is funding, with 71 per cent of suicide prevention services reporting they do not believe services for priority populations are appropriately funded. Only 3 per cent did.

“We have a significant shortage of the psychiatrists needed to service the country’s mental health needs. This has only been further exacerbated by the surge in mental health demand during COVID-19, with wait times as long as nine months,” Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists President, Associate Professor Vinay Lakra, said.

“It is important that we continue to monitor the situation and continue to enhance and improve service provision to address the inequity within the system and provide services to those who need it, when and where they need it,” he said, adding that addressing workforce shortages and funding consistency would also help.  

One new initiative announced today is Anglicare’s launch of a Suicide Prevention for Seniors Program.

“Suicide is a topic that many Churches shy away from but open dialogue and education can help save lives.” – Mike Sheedy

The program, supported by the NSW government’s Suicide Prevention Fund 2020-2024, consists of an online course, webinars and resources, designed to train those who support older people across New South Wales to recognise the signs of suicide and step in to offer older people hope and connect them to services and resources that reduce feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Mike Sheedy, Head of Mental Health at Anglicare, said he hoped World Suicide Prevention Day would encourage open dialogue about suicide.

“In a Christian context, open dialogue about suicide is important. Suicide is a topic that many Churches shy away from but open dialogue and education can help save lives,” he said.

Anglicare’s new program hopes to equip people to have these conversations with older Australians at risk of suicide using a capacity-building and collaborative approach to increase the skills and knowledge of staff, community members and stakeholders.

“Equipping aged care, health care and other professionals to spot the signs of suicidal crisis and provide appropriate intervention is a way to reduce the rate of suicide in the older population,” Sheedy explained.

Australian men aged over 85 have the highest rate of suicide yet are less likely to use specialty mental health services. Equipping those who support older people, such as aged-care workers, pastoral care workers, doctors and pharmacists can therefore play a significant role in lowering the suicide rate in seniors.

To get help 24/7, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467. If you or someone you know are in immediate danger, phone 000 for emergency services.

To learn more about Anglicare’s program or register to take part, contact Nancy Gewargis, Suicide Prevention for Seniors Program Coordinator on 1300 111 278.