Silence on suicide does more harm than good
In July last year, the South Australian Coroner Mark Johns called for suicide statistics to be published alongside the road toll. Since that time, just over 100 South Australians have died on the state’s roads. More than 180 South Australians have killed themselves.
Despite Mr Johns’ call, suicide statistics remain unpublished. The topic by and large remains taboo. And desperate people keep taking their own lives because their mental illness isn’t properly treated, or because friends and family don’t have the confidence or the skills to raise this most delicate of subjects.
As a community, we’ve got to stop being so squeamish about suicide. It’s the single biggest cause of death for Australian females aged 15-34 and males 15-44. Latest statistics show that 2130 Australians took their own lives in 2009, compared to 1417 road deaths for the year and 1837 from skin cancer.
Yet while $7m is spent on mass media advertising to curb SA’s road toll alone, there’s nothing similar to curb the incidence of suicide. So what needs to change?
Experts like Mr Johns and SA’s Public Advocate John Brayley says the task is two-fold: prevention and awareness.
Around 70 per cent of suicides are associated with depression, so reducing the stigma of mental illness and expanding services are fundamental. Most other suicide victims are in a ‘situational crisis’, so timely access to crisis counseling is also essential.
Family First MLC Robert Brokenshire says SA’s services are simply too haphazard, and this week called for a Suicide Prevention Coordinator to be funded in Thursday’s State Budget.
In response, Health Minister John Hill revealed that his department has for some time been preparing a Suicide Prevention Strategy “to focus our efforts on the things that will have the most impact”.
It will include a new Suicide Prevention Advisory Committee, reporting directly to the Minister on the success (or otherwise) of measures, any gaps in services and ways to better coordinate government agencies.
That’s the first we’ve heard of it – and it’s a welcome initiative. But it still leaves us with the mammoth task of raising awareness and reducing the stigma of suicide in the wider population.
With church ministers and chaplains dealing with suicide on a weekly basis, the Moderator of the Uniting Church in South Australia, Rev Rob Williams, agrees. He too is calling for urgent action on suicide awareness as well as prevention, and the Uniting Church is now forming its own taskforce to drive the issue forward.
“There’s got to be more that we can do and we think a good place to start is lifting the lid on the secrecy surrounding suicide. Certainly, a sensitive and gentle shift in the way media look at these issues is something that we are very interested in.”
The Australian Press Council is interested too. It’s currently reviewing its 10-year-old reporting guidelines on suicide and will release the findings later this month.
A major issue, of course, remains the fear of copy-cat suicides. Some still believe that instead of preventing suicides, increased reporting will merely cause more. But with so many Australians taking their own lives, it’s time to mature our thinking on that score.
People who are truly intent on killing themselves have an abundance of information to make it happen – not least in the online world where traditional media guidelines are ignored with gusto.
The mainstream media has a responsibility to continue treating suicides carefully and sensitively, but surely one way to achieve that is by publishing regular figures (similar to the road toll) to keep the issue high on the public agenda.
As a community, we’re then sending a message that – like road deaths – suicides are preventable and we’re committed to curbing the toll. That’s got to be better than pretending 2000 Australians aren’t killing themselves each year.
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