Suicide myths are best busted with firm action
Published: 9 February, 2018
Scientia Professor Helen Christensen responds to beyondblue's new report that found a large deficit in the public's understanding of suicide prevention.
The latest snapshot of the nation’s collective attitudes towards suicide, released by beyondblue, is a cause for concern.
Despite prolific awareness campaigns, high profile celebrity advocates and mounting interest from governments over the last few years, it’s clear that suicide is poorly understood by more than 50% of the population.
Half the respondents in beyondblue’s survey of more than 3000 people believed that only professionals can help someone at risk. More troubling, 40 per cent also maintain that suicide occurs without warning.
International evidence confirms the fact that talking about suicide doesn’t raise the risk of ‘planting’ suicidal thoughts. Yet this belief persists in the findings, with 30 per cent of interviewees believing the false claim that talking about suicide could encourage suicidal plans.
Despite many years in suicide prevention research, findings like these still stop me in my tracks. They’re a wake-up call – that for all the progress we’ve made as a sector in generating mental health knowledge through campaigns and media, everyday Australians are still lost for words when it comes to understanding suicide and knowing how they can contribute to lowering rates.
But as troubling as these findings are, the much bigger cause for concern has very little to do with a lack of knowledge. It has much more to do with the failure to implement effective strategies into practice and to scale up. In other words, what we have is implementation failure.
The World Health Organisation, United Kingdom, USA, European Union and Australia, including the National Mental Health Commission, are essentially united on the strategies needed to lower suicide globally. These countries and alliances have been in furious agreement for some time that the only way to effect meaningful change is to focus not only on the individual, but the whole community. Dubbed a ‘systems approach’ to suicide prevention, this method harnesses the collective power of multiple life-saving strategies delivered at once in a local area, involving both community and health systems.
The Black Dog Institute and others predict this strategy could potentially reduce deaths and attempts by as much as 20-30 per cent. Our researchers are putting the model to the test right now through ground-breaking work on LifeSpan, Australia’s largest scientific suicide prevention trial.
However, systematic issues plague efforts to take research in suicide prevention from the ivory tower and into our hospitals, schools and communities.
Take for instance one of the most effective ways to prevent suicide deaths and attempts - offering effective aftercare following a suicide attempt. Encouragingly, aftercare services are being piloted in selected sites nationally, including beyondblue’s Way Back Service, through Primary Health Networks and in Black Dog Institute’s LifeSpan sites.
But beyond this, many regions simply have no aftercare. The terrible stories of people who have lost those to suicide because they were not admitted to emergency or were prematurely discharged without proper follow-up will continue. This is simply not right.
To bring this vital strategy to scale in all parts of the country will require unprecedented financial and political backing. Even to service all of Tasmania – which represents just 2 per cent of the Australian population – could cost upwards of $19 million a year. This includes the cost of establishing the aftercare service itself, ensuring it is well-staffed by people adequately trained to deliver it, and providing a public education campaign to encourage people to use it.
To replicate this nationally will cost up to 50 times this amount – up to $960 million. And this staggering amount only covers aftercare, which is just one of many strategies we know can make an impact in saving lives.
Teaching people to spot the signs of suicidal thinking is undoubtedly an essential factor in reducing suicide. But awareness only takes us partway towards a population-level response to this pernicious and devastating issue.
Similarly, providing top-shelf suicide prevention services in a few regional centres will not cut national suicide rates – what we need is scale.
It’s time we improved the national conversation on suicide, and match this with sustained and effective investment in better health and community services. Until then, we’re just paying lip service to the cause.
Professor Helen Christensen is Director and Chief Scientist at the Black Dog Institute, and Chief Investigator for the NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention.
If you or someone you know is in crisis please call one of the following national helplines:
LIFELINE COUNSELLING SERVICE - 13 11 14
SUICIDE CALL BACK SERVICE 1300 659 467 (cost of a local call)