I rise today to speak on the difficult topic of suicide and, in particular, what can be done to prevent suicide occurring. I particularly refer to a seminar I attended recently in my home state of Tasmania.
On 23 May I attended a Community Response to Eliminating Suicide—more commonly known as CORES—seminar hosted by Kingborough Council in southern Tasmania. The CORES program began in the small community of Sheffield in north-west Tasmania after the town was left devastated by 10 locals committing suicide within a five-year period. The program was developed with the aim of enhancing the skills and confidence of community members to intervene with people at risk of suicide and so assist in the community’s goal to reduce the risk of suicide. One of the key people involved with CORES is a woman called Coralanne Walker, who was Manager of Regional Health Services Tasmania. She hoped that by educating people those contemplating suicide will be identified and given the support needed to begin the slow process towards recovery.
CORES was originally funded by the Tasmanian Community Fund in 2003-04. In Kentish, 168 people took advantage of the two-year funded project, and from that a CORES team of 50 dedicated community people was formed and met on a monthly basis. This dedicated group of people continues to meet on a monthly basis even now. I am pleased to announce that in the two years between receiving the initial funding and delivering the report there were no reported suicides in the Sheffield area of Tasmania. The one-day program of CORES training I attended covered signs and indicators of suicide, including suicidal thoughts, assessment of risk, and issues that should be taken into account when contemplating intervening with a person who has suicidal thoughts.
Suicide unfortunately touches many members of the community and people from all walks of life. Only a few weeks ago, one of my dearest friends lost her eldest sister to suicide. This incident, so close to home, highlighted to me that suicidal thoughts are not the preserve of any one particular social or economic grouping or demographic. Celebrities, people in prison, teenagers and farmers—no-one is really immune. The people who complete suicide are only part of the story. There are many others who attempt suicide but survive and there are others who contemplate it but never act. We as a society need to discuss suicide. We need to be aware of what to look for in our families, friends and colleagues so that as many suicides as possible can be prevented.
In 2004 there were 2,098 suicides in Australia. In 2006, 72 Tasmanians took their lives, compared to 75 in 2005. Unfortunately, Tasmania’s suicide rate is much higher than the national average. The north-west region of our beautiful state has the highest rate of suicide in Tasmania. In 2008, the Tasmanian Suicide Prevention Steering Committee conducted consultations with various stakeholders. The consultation process identified people in rural and isolated communities as having a greater risk of suicide, which supports previous research. The figure for unreported suicides is somewhere between five and 25 per cent greater than the number of suicides, and the known number of people who have attempted suicide is 40 to 100 per cent higher than the total number of suicides. One person in every 12 has thoughts of suicide at some point in their lives, and one in five people suffer from depression.
An alarming statistic is that almost 80 per cent of people who commit suicide are male. One reason for this is that men are more likely to recognise the physical symptoms that come with depression and not the emotional symptoms. It is important that people are able to recognise that there is a problem. This is the first step towards getting better, and, if the emotional symptoms are not addressed, the problems will remain. Even in cases where men realise they are depressed, they are less likely to seek help than women. Men are also more likely to manage symptoms of depression with alcohol and other drugs.
Disturbingly, it is a fact that a person who has attempted suicide is 40 times more likely to attempt to take their life again. It is also known that the people who have had a significant other—that is, someone near and dear to them; someone with whom they have a close relationship—complete suicide are 40 times more likely to attempt suicide. Suicide makes up a small proportion of deaths overall at only 1.6 per cent; however, suicide may account for between 20 and 30 per cent of deaths in some age groups. For each person who commits suicide or attempts suicide, many others are affected. The people left behind are left wondering what they could have done to prevent the suicide, what signs they missed and whether they could or should have done something different, and some even feel that they are to blame for the death.
Suicide is both a complex and a tragic issue and it often occurs as a result of a number of factors combining—things such as mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, family issues, employment, cultural issues, education, poverty, bullying, law enforcement and criminal justice. When a suicide occurs, it is often hard to establish the cause. There are many myths about suicide, including that people who talk about suicide will not act on it, people who talk about suicide are attention seekers, all suicidal people are crazy, it is the act of a mentally ill or psychotic person, most suicides happen late at night, and terminally ill persons are most likely to commit suicide. Myths such as these mean that many people are misinformed about suicide. We all need to be properly informed in order to play our part in preventing suicide. It might be easier to ignore the fact that suicide occurs, but it must not be ignored, because it is a reality that many of us will have to deal with it at some stage in our life.
There are many signs that may indicate a person is contemplating suicide. These include negative comments, changes in behaviour or changes in personal circumstances. It is often difficult to know whether a person is suicidal and, if you are worried about a person, it is hard to know what to do to help them. If a person is talking about suicide, you should listen to them and encourage them to seek professional help. You should ask questions to find out as much as possible. Ask the person if they are contemplating suicide. That is really challenging. In the CORES training I undertook, even though I knew it was only role-play, it was challenging to ask, ‘Are you contemplating suicide?’ and even more challenging when the answer was yes. Asking this question allows you to make a judgment on whether someone said they were going to end it all because they were really upset and it was said in the heat of the moment or whether it is something they have thought about carefully.
If someone confides in you that they are contemplating taking their life, you should not keep it a secret. This can also be challenging, but, as our trainers put it, would you rather lose a friend and have them still alive because you asked the question and helped them or would you rather take the easy road and ignore the signs and have that person die, or damage themselves in the attempt?
There are a number of options for people contemplating suicide. They can talk to their family or friends, they can go to their GP or the hospital or they can ring a phone hotline such as Lifeline, beyondblue or, in Tasmania, the Mental Health Services Helpline. The bottom line is that they need to talk to someone about how they are feeling. By talking to someone, they are easing their burden and allowing others to be aware of how they are feeling and to help them.
People who talk about suicide are not attention seekers; they are feeling desperate and need help. People who talk about suicide may try to take their life. It is not true to say that all people who commit or attempt suicide have kept their intentions secret. I know from the experience of my own staff that political offices on occasion get phone calls from people who are very distressed and threaten suicide. This is a difficult situation for anyone to be put in and that is why it is vital to discuss suicide and know what to do when someone mentions it. I encourage all senators and members to encourage their staff to attend some form of suicide intervention-prevention training.
CORES is just one suicide prevention program available. In July my colleague Jodie Campbell, the member for Bass in Tasmania, launched a new program in Launceston, the StandBy Response Service. This is a national service, but Tasmania once again was the first state to offer state-wide coverage. This program will work in conjunction with Lifeline. Mental Health Week runs from 4 till 10 October this year, with World Mental Health Day on the 10th. This year in Tasmania, the theme for Mental Health Week is ‘Mental health: let’s make a difference … understand, support and act’. This is exactly what each Australian needs to do.
In conclusion I want to reiterate that suicide is a complex and tragic issue that is too often shied away from. We cannot afford to ignore the issue. It is important that society as a whole is educated about this issue because a huge number of us will have a relative, friend or colleague who has committed suicide or attempted suicide. We need to be educated not only so that we can find coping mechanisms in the unfortunate situation that a loved one commits suicide but also so that we are able to see the warning signs. If we recognise the warning signs, we can act appropriately to ensure that the vulnerable person gets the professional help they need. It is better to prevent a suicide than to have to cope with the aftermath. I also encourage all senators and members as well as their staff to attend a suicide prevention-intervention workshop. An educated society can make a difference on this vital issue.
Sitting suspended from 1.51 pm to 2.00 pm