Each year on World Suicide Prevention Day, 10 September, events, campaigns and community initiatives aim to collectively call attention to one of the world’s largest causes of premature and unnecessary death – suicide.
While there have been significant improvements in mental health support over the last few decades, many working at the coalface of support services say there is still a long way to go.
Recent estimates suggest that every ten minutes more than one Australian will attempt to take their own life and one person every four hours will die by suicide. In fact, in Australia, the suicide rate is currently at a ten-year peak, placing it as the leading cause of death for those under the age of 44.
Sadly, statistics and cold facts such as these continue to belie the true extent and effects of suicide throughout the community.
Lifeline is one organisation, with close Uniting Church links, actively working to shine a light on the issues surrounding suicide and mental illness.
Since 1963 Lifeline has worked to break down the stigma around suicide while actively providing intensive crisis support for those struggling with a range of issues.
Born out of the outreach work of a forward-thinking Uniting Church minister, Lifeline has since gone on to provide counselling and crisis support throughout Australia and across the globe through its network of international partners.
Lifeline founder, Rev Dr Sir Alan Walker’s underlying principles for the organisation were simple. As a key figure in Sydney’s Central Methodist Mission, Dr Walker was often called by people facing all manner of difficulties and crisis situations.
He felt it was critical that everyone should always have somewhere to turn and someone to speak with. It is this simple yet pragmatic notion that has enabled Lifeline to be a world leader in supporting individuals in crisis and those simply in need of a sympathetic ear.
Terry Keating is the manager of Lifeline Melbourne, which operates out of Wesley Mission Victoria’s offices on Lonsdale Street.
He says that two years ago Lifeline was receiving roughly 700,000 calls throughout the year. Calls have since steadily increased with current estimates suggesting that in a year’s time Lifeline will receive more than 1 million calls each year – this figure is expected to continue to grow.
Every 50 seconds someone will reach out and call Lifeline.
With decades of experience in the not-for-profit sector and the juvenile justice system, Mr Keating has a keen insight into existing community needs around mental health and suicide prevention.
He is quick to highlight the necessity for an open public discourse on mental health issues – particularly suicide.
Citing, for example, successful campaigns to reduce the road toll, Mr Keating stresses the imperative for open conversations in the wider community.
“More people die by suicide in Australia than die on our roads – and that’s only based on reported suicides,” he said.
“Road trauma is such a terrible thing and the community has developed a very positive view of trying to combat it to reduce the road toll.
“Whereas suicide is often seen as something we can’t talk about. There’s still a lot of stigma and so often you don’t get the same level of community awareness and engagement in the issue.”
The true level of suicide in our community is difficult to measure due to many deaths which could potentially have been suicides being classified otherwise.
Mr Keating notes that many car accidents and the deaths of older people as two examples which often involve a degree of uncertainty and therefore are unlikely to be classified.
Individuals who call Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis support number do so for a myriad of reasons. While family and relationship problems, acute crisis and drug and alcohol issues are recurring themes, those who answer the calls say every caller is different.
“I often say to the new graduates answering phones ‘you must always remember that what might not be a crisis for you may well be a crisis for the person ringing’,” Mr Keating said.
Mr Keating notes the seemingly innocuous example of an elderly woman calling about a cat stuck in a tree.
“You might start a conversation like this or something else totally out of left field. But then as you talk it unfolds her husband of 50 years has died recently and that cat is all that is left of their life together – so for her that crisis, in that moment, is incredibly significant.
“You really have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to understand the depth of despair that some people feel.
“And actually, many people aren’t aware that in the latest suicide statistics from the ABS, the highest suicide rates were for men over the age of 85.
“So often, you really just don’t know what people are going through.”
Known as crisis support workers, Lifeline currently has more than 3500 volunteers who donate their time to assist those experiencing crisis.
As Lifeline callers reflect the diversity of the wider community so too do those who give their time to help. Many have a breadth of real life lived experience while others have complementary expertise in counselling or related fields.
Josh is an unassuming 25-year-old currently working as a public health research assistant in Melbourne.
With longish hair and red converse sneakers, he’d strike many people as being a fairly typical young Melburnian. Josh has been a regular Lifeline volunteer for just over a year.
“I wanted to give something back to the community so I looked into voluntary work at different organisations in terms of my skills and interests,” he said.
“Lifeline was a good fit for me. It’s a well-respected organisation with great training and support.”
Josh echoes the sentiments of many working in the mental health support sector by noting the range of individuals seeking help.
“From people with a high risk of suicide to people who are lonely to people who’ve just had a bad day and everything in between – every caller is different,” he said.
“Whether it is acknowledged or not a lot of people are touched by suicide. It could be a friend or a friend of a friend, a workmate or even a family member. Rich, poor, old, young – everybody is touched by mental illness, either directly or indirectly.”
As well as the day-to-day struggles of contemporary living, evidence suggests spikes in the number of people seeking assistance from mental health support services occur when high-profile traumatic events take place.
The Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 disaster, ongoing military conflicts and prominent suicides have been closely linked with significant increases in calls to Lifeline.
Media coverage surrounding actor Robin Williams’ suicide is one recent example.
Josh believes the intense media scrutiny that often surrounds highly publicised instances of suicide can be a double edged sword.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” he said.
“On the one hand it can be really useful to draw people’s attention to issues like depression or self-harm or suicide. And it can be a trigger to start really frank conversations between people who might not otherwise talk about their problems – that can be really helpful.
“But sometimes the way it’s reported can be in really poor taste.
“There are a lot of terrible things in the world and all kinds of different things can really get people down and bring up their own issues.”
As well as more open discussions, another proposed aspect of supporting mental health reform is the wider implementation of practical educational programs.
Lifeline currently provides a range of training on suicide awareness and intervention, domestic violence and mental health support.
Josh suggests that just as first aid training has become common place so too could mental health support training.
“It would be great if mental health training could become more institutionalised,” he said.
“The suicide intervention training we do as part of Lifeline is great, I wish everyone in Australia could do it. Even just promoting some awareness about attitudes towards suicide, how common it is and being able to ask questions and direct people to support like Lifeline – that doesn’t take long to teach. Imagine if that kind of training could be rolled out in workplaces, community groups and schools.”
As the manager of Lifeline, Mr Keating is sensitive to recent cultural shifts in the perception of suicide and mental illness more generally. He notes the change in language used in relation to suicide as being indicative of a general shift in the right direction.
“We now talk about people ‘suiciding’ rather than ‘committing suicide’ these days,” he said.
“That wording of ‘commit’ implies a crime and really harkens back to outdated thinking.
“Lifeline being promoted in media when reporting mental health issues also shows a shift in perceptions. Improvements are evident elsewhere – it’s more accepted in the mainstream. Mental health issues feature on TV, it’s talked about in newspapers. I think that illustrates that there’s a lot more knowledge of the complexities of mental health.
“The more mainstream it becomes the more open we are to talking about mental health and suicide.
“So there have been some improvements but there’s still work to do and we need to engage the community in the issues.”
Out of the Shadows is a Lifeline initiated community walk coinciding with this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day. Participants are encouraged to take part in community walks across the country – all in the spirit of highlighting suicide as a significant social issue.
“Out of the shadows is about promoting the idea that it is okay to talk about suicide,” Mr Keating said.
“I think campaigns like World Suicide Prevention Day are vital for breaking down stigma and starting conversations. The more we’re able to talk about suicide, the more likely we are able to notice when someone is at risk. By openly talking about suicide we reduce the stigma which so often prevents people with thoughts of suicide from seeking help. Suicide is preventable and we need to communicate the message that it’s okay to ask for help.
“Ultimately we should respond to mental health as you would a broken leg – a serious health issue. If you break your leg you go to the doctor, you seek help. It should be the same with mental health.
“It’s important that we talk about suicide and how people struggle with it. We need to acknowledge that it is a part of the world we live in. It’s not some unspeakable thing that we should not talk about or try to hide away from.”
To join or organise a Lifeline community walk on 10 September, World Suicide Prevention Day, visit www.outoftheshadows.org.au.
Support is available for those who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14.
Deaths by suicide
Deaths by suicide have reached a 10-year peak
The most recent Australian data (ABS, Causes of Death, 2012) reports deaths due to suicide at 2,535
The overall suicide rate in 2012 was 11.0 per 100,000, compared to the 2011 rate of 9.9 per 1,000
In 2012, 1,901 males (16.8 per 100,000) and 634 females (5.6 per 100,000) died by suicide.
This equates to almost seven deaths by suicide in Australia each day
Men account for three out of every five deaths by suicide, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for males
For those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, the suicide rate is 2.5 times higher for males and 3.4 times higher for females
The most recent data (ABS, Causes of Death, 2012) shows that almost twice as many people died from suicide in Australia, than in road related transport deaths (1,310 vs 2,535)
For every completed suicide, it is estimated that as many as 30 people attempt
That’s around 200 attempts per day
That’s more than one new attempt in Australia every 10 minutes
Thoughts of suicide (Suicidal ideation)
It is estimated that around 250 people make a suicide plan every day
It is estimated that around 1,000 people think about suicide every day
Illustration by Garth Jones – www.eldepositodelplatino.com