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Why Australia needs a national plan to prevent suicide in young people

Introduction by Croakey: The National Suicide Prevention Office, established last year by the former Federal Government, should be tasked with developing a national plan on self-harm and suicide prevention for young people, for release by mid 2023.

The call comes in a new policy brief released alongside a webinar hosted by youth mental health organisation Orygen on 28 July examining how to progress such a national plan.

The brief says the national plan should then be supported by the states and territories through the development of their own policies and procedures to prevent self-harm and suicide among young people. Tasmania is the only government in Australia to have developed a youth suicide prevention plan to date, says Orygen.

The webinar and policy brief follow the recent release of two related reports:

• The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing (22 July) found around 1.1 million (39.6 per cent) of young people aged 16 to 24 years had experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months, which is higher than older age groups and is consistent with other recent studies. More than half (54.4 per cent) of people who identified as LGBTQIA+ experienced a mental disorder in 2020–21, with anxiety disorders the most prevalent. Women are disproportionately impacted by mental disorders across the whole of their lives, particularly young women, and the survey also reported an increase  in the prevalence of mental illness in young people aged 16-24 since the last survey in 2007.

• Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data on suicide and self harm (26 July) reports 3,139 Australians died by suicide in 2020, with an age standardised rate of 12.1 deaths per 100,000 population, which is down from 13.2 in 2017. While there has been a rise in the use of mental health services and an increase in psychological distress during the pandemic, COVID-19 has not been associated with a rise in suspected deaths by suicide in 2020 and 2021, says the AIHW report. Suicide was the leading cause of death for young people in 2020, being responsible for over one-third of deaths in Australians aged 15-24.

According to Associate Professor Jo Robinson, Head of Suicide Prevention Research at Orygen, a youth-specific suicide prevention plan is needed to offer young people a strong voice, meet young people where they are and “provide them with the support they need, when they need it and where they need it”.


Jo Robinson writes:

It’s time for a national youth suicide prevention plan. Suicide remains the leading cause of death for young people in Australia and rates of suicide, suicide attempt, suicidal ideation and self-harm have been increasing in the past 10 years among young Australians.

The release last week of data from the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing showed the worsening state of youth mental health and extent of lifetime suicidal ideation and self-harm behaviours, highlighting the need for early intervention when people are young.

Just as the impacts of the pandemic have highlighted an urgent need to better respond to young people’s mental health, we clearly need to do things differently if we want to reduce suicide risk among our young people.

In a policy review on this issue, Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, found that Australia needs a targeted national youth suicide prevention plan if we are to reduce the rates of self-harm and suicide among young people.

While governments across Australia have developed suicide prevention policies and strategies, these have all provided an all-ages response with one notable exception: the Tasmanian Youth Suicide Prevention Plan (2016-2020).

Yet the data speaks for itself: all-age approaches to self-harm and suicide prevention do not adequately meet the needs or experiences of young people.

Research shows that young people face unique stressors and developmental changes that contribute this being the peak period of onset for mental ill-health (a key contributor to suicide risk). Additional socioeconomic factors can compound the pressures young people are experiencing. A youth-focused plan is required to respond in a timely way to the needs of young people.

A national youth suicide prevention plan is required to help us capitalise on the opportunities for intervention and deliver the best opportunity to effectively intervene where young people are both in terms of context and content.

Prevention and intervention should occur across key environments where young people can be identified and supported when at risk of suicide; examples include education settings, online, and emergency departments.

For example, social media plays a key role in young people’s lives, more so than in any previous generations. Concerns exist about the role this can play in contributing to mental ill-health; but these platforms also provide opportunities for intervention that are not yet being fully utilised.

Welcome shift

Over recent years there has been a welcome shift in suicide prevention policies towards whole-of-government approaches to an issue that had historically been viewed through a health service system lens.

Similarly, any targeted efforts to address self-harm and suicide among young people need to recognise the role that the broader systems, services, and individuals can have in either increasing distress among young people or in providing opportunities for prevention and support.

Broadening the focus to include policy considerations in education, employment services, environment, justice, the technology/ social media industry and family services should be central to a future youth suicide prevention plan.

The most critical factor in ensuring a youth focused plan will meet young people’s needs is the meaningful and active engagement of young people themselves at each stage of its development, implementation, and evaluation.

All young people should see their solutions incorporated in a youth suicide prevention plan. An Australia-wide youth suicide prevention plan, with young people front and centre, would respond to young people’s life experiences, their changing developmental needs, and inform service design and delivery in a form acceptable to young people. A tailored youth policy would enable an approach based on best practice guidance and the latest evidence for effective prevention.

Or put simply, a youth-specific suicide prevention plan, offering young people a strong voice, would meet young people where they are and provide them with the support they need, when they need it and where they need it.

The result will be better targeted investment in more effective programs, activities and supports that will ultimately reduce the rates of youth suicide and self-harm in Australia. With a new Federal Government, there is an opportunity to approach this issue with fresh eyes and create positive change for the mental health and wellbeing of our young people.

Associate Professor Jo Robinson, Head of Suicide Prevention Research at Orygen, will speak at the webinar on 28 July.

See here for more details on the webinar on youth suicide prevention hosted by Orygen from 11am AEST on 28 July.


Finding help

Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 www.kidshelpline.com.au
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78 www.mensline.org.au
Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service 1800 512 348
Head to Health National Phone Service (1800 595 212, www.headtohealth.gov.au)
Head to Health Adult Mental Health Centres (www.headtohealth.gov.au/supporting-yourself/adult-mental-health-centres)
QLife – phone peer support service by LGBTIQ+ peers for all ages. 3pm-midnight. 1800 184 527 or webchat www.qlife.org.au

If you are concerned about suicide, living with someone who is considering suicide or bereaved by suicide – the Suicide Call Back Service is available at 1300 659 467 or www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au.


Declaration: Melissa Sweet is facilitating the Orygen webinar on behalf of Croakey Professional Services

 

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