ABS 2017 Causes of Death for Suicide: When observational data is not enough
Published: 3 December, 2018
Helen Christensen, Director and Chief Scientist at the Black Dog Institute, reflects on the ABS 2017 Causes of Death for Suicide report and the need to harness data for effective suicide prevention.
The new statistics on suicide deaths in Australia for 2017 show that the number of deaths has increased by 262 from 2016. Taking population growth into account, these figures reflect a trend in the rate of deaths over the last decade.
Age standardised rates in 2017 were found to be 12.6 per 100,000, while in 2008, they were 10.9%. Each death a tragedy, and each one potentially preventable. It is clear we are losing far too many Australian lives.
So, what does this data really tell us?
The causes of suicide are complex and multi-factorial, and differ on an individual basis. As a nation, we aren’t well equipped enough to identify the warning signs; our hospital systems may not provide good crisis care or provide services after a suicide attempt; we are not able to provide interventions earlier enough in schools or workplaces; people do not seek help, and when they do, help services may not be responsive, high quality or appropriate.
So rather than observational data of annual suicide rates, what we need is specific information that will inform targeted and timely service provision if we are going to make a real difference on reducing suicide rates.
A while back, I was invited to a forum and showcase on data run by the SAS, an international data analytics company. Many of the speakers on the day were corporates who used their data analytics to build systems with the end goal of increasing profit margins. The systems I saw on the day monitored, plotted and provided feedback systematically across multiple sites (even countries), displaying changes in graphs and pie charts in real time, and in response to multiple external factors.
So why was this technology only being used for commercial purposes and not to help Australian communities and the healthcare system? Why were we not doing this with our data sets on suicide? And why couldn’t data systems, such as SAS’s platforms, be used to unlock collected and new data on suicide risk and harm?
Like our suicide rates, the status of our suicide data systems lags behind other OECD countries. We do not yet have single national data sets on deaths, hospitalisations, police data or ambulance data. Data is locked up in registries, spreadsheets, and linkage systems across States and Territories. Even with our uneven data collections, data are hard to access in the first place. Permissions need to be granted for each project, and identities need to be protected (for both legal and governance reasons). However, even when released these data remain limited. They are merely numbers in spreadsheets – not something the people in our health systems or communities can independently use without specialist help. And because of this, health workers and communities- those in the best possible position to help our most at-risk Australians- are placed in a position of impotence, unable to use this data to develop systems and networks that will significantly reduce and prevent suicide.
This can change. After 2 years working with SAS’s ‘Data for Good’ initiative, the Black Dog Institute has developed a data system and portal that provides information clearly needed to deliver robust and detailed services in specific areas- via the healthcare system, communities and PHNs- to target at-risk individuals. All of this with the aim of reducing and preventing suicide.
Our system, called the Suicide Prevention Intelligence System (SPIS), behaves in the same way corporate systems work. It uses myriad data, including the geospatial mapping expertise of our partners- GRAPHIC- at the Australian National University, our internal data team and research scientists at Black Dog, the good will and permission from Coroners and government data custodians, and of course, SAS. Currently, it is being used to inform our work in the LifeSpan trial sites across NSW.
Our data collation isn’t perfect and it isn’t complete, particularly as we navigate the understandably tricky terrain of waiting for permissions to some of the data. Yet it is our attempt to do something as an Institute that values the lives and livelihoods of our Australians. As we progress along this data journey, it is our hope that, along with the help of our communities and health networks, we can use the data to develop intricate yet robust suicide safety nets to provide support to at-risk Australians, regardless of age, gender and geographic location.
We are now adding more datasets - working with Ambulance and Police to gather information that will generate more timely data. Timely data that if not used to action urgent help, could lead to suicide attempts or deaths within days. While this system isn’t complete, we have demonstrated that it can be done. With permissions in place, and within a short time period, our data system could offer national, timely, geographically-sensitive, predictive, visualised and preventative analytics for Australia.
Suicide prevention is everybody’s business and it is up to us to do everything we can to prevent it from happening. At Black Dog, one way we are doing this is through SPIS, which would not be where it is without substantial corporate support (SAS), expert geographers, and data custodians from across governments, police, ambulance and science. More importantly, it was funded through philanthropy: the Paul Ramsay Foundation. This effort is both an example of how we all play a part, and the importance we all place on reducing and preventing suicide in our communities.
Director and Chief Scientist | Black Dog Institute
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)