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Looking behind the numbers for a better understanding of suicide and its impacts

Introduction by Croakey: Efforts to prevent suicides must address the harms caused by alcohol and other drugs, according to an analysis of the latest national suicide data and associated risk factors.

The data shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has not been associated with an increase in suicide rates, with 2020 having the lowest rate reported since 2016.

However, this news is of “little comfort”, with 3,139 people dying by suicide in 2020, writes Dr Jaelea Skehan OAM, the Director of Everymind. This means that more than 420,000 people were impacted, whether as as a family member, friend, colleague, treating professional or other contact.


Jaelea Skehan writes:

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) today released the Causes of Death Data for 2020, including official suicide data for Australia.

The data shows that suicides decreased between 2019 and 2020 for both men and women, and across most states and territories, with the rate of suicide (12.1 per 100,000) the lowest it has been since 2016.

The reduction of 6.1% for males and 7.1% for females occurred following the devastating bushfires and the first year of the pandemic, and do not support initial fears and claims in the media that suicide rates would, and already were, increasing in 2020.

These reductions are of little comfort to most of us however, as 3,139 people died by suicide in 2020, representing lives lost and communities devastated across our country. This underscores the need for compassionate and collaborative suicide prevention efforts that take a whole of government and whole of community approach.

Key points

Everymind, through the Mindframe program, hosted a briefing for media and the suicide prevention sector today and has interpreted and summarised the data to make it easier for people to understand.

Some of the key points include:

  • In 2020, there was a decrease of suicide deaths from 3,318 deaths in 2019 (12.9 per 100,000) to 3,139 deaths in 2020 (12.1 per 100,000). This is the lowest national suicide rate recorded since 2016.
  • There were 2,384 male deaths (6 per 100,000) and 755 female deaths (5.8 per 100,000).
  • The suicide rate for males decreased by 6.1% and the suicide rate for females decreased by 7.9% between 2019 and 2020.
  • Young people and middle-aged people are more likely to die by suicide than other age cohorts, with 83.6% of people who died by suicide aged under 65 years.
  • The age-standardised suicide rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (27.9 per 100, 000) was more than double the overall suicide rate for Australia in 2020 (using data from NSW, Qld, WA, SA and NT).
  • All states except the Australian Capital Territory had a decrease in suicide rates between 2019 and 2020. While most jurisdictions have seen fluctuating suicide rates over recent years, both NSW and Qld recorded a consistent three-year reduction in suicide rates.
  • In most states and territories, suicide rates are higher for areas outside of the capital cities.

Pandemic impact, and other risk factors

The official data provide an opportunity to assess the impact of the pandemic on suicide rates. Australia’s suicide rates decreased in 2020, which is consistent with international research from 21 countries, published in the Lancet Psychiatry, that found no evidence of a significant increase in risk of suicide since the pandemic began.

It also builds on initial data released from Victorian, New South Wales and Queensland suicide registers in 2020, in part, to address claims from people in the mental health sector and the media that suicides would, and already were, increasing in 2020.

This does not, mean, however, that the pandemic is not having an impact on distress. Figures from the AIHW’s National Suicide and Self-Harm Monitoring System show more people have been using crisis lines like Lifeline and other mental health services since the pandemic began. There has also been an increase in ambulance attendances for suicidal thoughts and self-harm in both NSW and Victoria.

For the first time, the ABS was able to capture data related to the pandemic, where it was mentioned in either a police, pathology or coronial report. It found that in 2020 there were 99 people (3.2% of suicide deaths) for whom factors relating to COVID-19 were mentioned, alongside other risk factors (an average of five risk factors per person).

For the 99 people who died by suicide with issues relating to COVID-19:

  • 6% also had a mood disorder (including depression)
  • 5% also had problems related to un/employment
  • 3% also had acute substance use or intoxication
  • 3% also had problems related to the social environments including social isolation

This perhaps tells us what we have already known. That suicidal behaviour is complex, and that increases in distress overall, or an increase in one risk factor, can’t simply be equated with an increase in suicides across the population. Long-term, and real-time, monitoring and proactive approaches that do not wait for distress to worsen are clearly needed and should continue to be a priority.

The ABS data for 2020 included an expanded focus on a range of associated factors. More than 90% of people who died by suicide had at least one risk factor reported.

The risk factors for suicide varied by gender and age, with mood disorders (including depression) the most common for males (38.7%) and females (45.3%). Younger people were more likely to have substance use (both acute toxicity and chronic use) mentioned as a risk factor.

Once again, this highlights the imperative to ensure that alcohol and other drug harm reduction is part of our national suicide prevention approach, with acute use and intoxication the second most commonly mentioned risk factor overall (29.3%).

The risk factors also indicate an ongoing need for a proactive response to those who have a personal history of self-harm (27%), and a focus on stresses that people experience in spousal relationships (23.2%), related to legal circumstances (11.2%), employment and unemployment (10.1%) and other family issues (9.7%).

Behind the numbers

We must remember that every life lost to suicide is significant, with the ripple effects felt across families and communities. Research shows that 135 people are exposed to each suicide death, meaning that more than 420,000 people in 2020 were impacted as a family member, friend, colleague, teammate, first responder, neighbour or treating professional.

Today as we cite the number of people who died by suicide to highlight the scale and impact of the issue, it is important to be reminded that this is only part of the overall picture. Behind each of those numbers is a person, a journey and a network of other people.

We also need to look beyond the statistics and ensure that we learn from those who have lived experience of suicide – particularly those who have experienced suicidal distress and suicidal thoughts, and from people who have lived through suicide attempts.

Further information 

The team at Everymind works closely with both the ABS and the AIHW (which hosts the  National Suicide and Self-Harm Monitoring System) to interpret and disseminate this data for the benefit of the sector and the broader community.

You can stay up to date with key data at Life in Mind, including the annual reporting on suicide among permanent, reserve and ex-serving members of the Australian Defence Force released earlier today. 

Dr Jaelea Skehan OAM is the Director of Everymind, a national institute dedicated to the prevention of mental ill-health and suicide, delivered through best practice programs, communication, policy responses and translational research.

For support

Please reach out to a loved one, or one of these services:

Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
beyondblue 1300 224 636 www.beyondblue.org.au
QLife 1800 184 527 qlife.org.au
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800 kidshelpline.com.au


See Croakey’s archive of stories on prevention.

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