It doesn’t have to end badly: a suicide prevention phone in Brisbane. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
A steep rise in death by suicide among middle-aged Australians and young women has driven the national suicide rate to its highest level in 13 years.
Australia’s suicide rate rose to 12 per 100,000 people in 2014, according to Bureau of Statistics figures released on Tuesday – the highest level since 2001, when it reached 12.6 per 100,000.
The suicide rate among those aged 55 to 64 years surged by 54 per cent in the 10 years to 2014, to 15.1 per 100,000.
The rate of suicide in women aged 15-24 jumped by 50 per cent over the same period, compared to a 2 per cent increase for men. (However, men made up three-quarters of the 362 suicides in the age group in 2014.)
Director and chief scientist at the Black Dog Institute Helen Christensen said increased risky behaviour among young women could have contributed to the rise in suicide rate, although more research was needed to know.
“Young girls are becoming more assertive and less risk-averse. They’re drinking earlier, smoking earlier … all those associated behaviours might lead to more impulsivity, which might lead to more risk-taking, more injury, more suicide risk,” Professor Christensen said.
Predictors of suicide were different for men and women, she said.
“Men worry about money, supporting their families, being the breadwinner. Women worry about interpersonal problems, for example, family conflicts.”
Calls to crisis support service Lifeline reached a record high of 1 million last year, prompting Lifeline chief executive Pete Shmigel to describe Australia’s suicide rates as a “national emergency”.
More than 60 per cent of callers to the service were women, mostly middle-aged women, and nearly 80 per cent of chat service users were women, mostly younger women.
While this indicated women were more likely to reach out for help, the factors behind female suicide were not well understood, Mr Shmigelsaid.
“[The numbers say] that people are getting to us too late,” he said.
“We made it OK to start talking about mental health, but we’re still not giving people enough skills to become capable of preventing suicide.”
Lifeline has called on the government to double funding to suicide prevention.
Alan Woodward, board director at Suicide Prevention Australia, linked the rise in suicide among middle-aged Australians to deteriorating quality of life, chronic health problems and age-based discrimination.
People who had survived a mental health crisis would prove a critical resource in reducing Australia’s suicide rate, he said. “We need to listen, understand and respond to the insights that people who have experienced suicide and crisis have shared with us.”
At the age of 20, Hayley Purdon attempted to take her own life.
She had experienced an eating disorder and depression during high school, and when she entered university her experience with anxiety grew worse.
Ms Purdon, now 29, said the thoughts behind her suicide attempt were pressure to do well, competition between peers and a feeling she was not good enough.
But she said suicidal thoughts and behaviours were often unique to the individual, and part of what made them so difficult to combat.
Ms Purdon sought help from a psychologist. She says what kept her “fighting for so long” were connections with people, and the feeling she wasn’t alone.
“For me that was a big thing. I thought that it was just me and I was crazy. But it turns out I wasn’t, and there were lots of people who go through the same thing.”
Suicide was the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15 to 44, while the rate for men was nearly twice the rate for women.
The bureau’s figures also painted a grim picture of the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who were almost twice as likely to die by suicide than non-Indigenous people.
Overall, heart disease remained the leading cause of death for Australians, the bureau figures show. But while the number of deaths from heart disease had fallen since 2004, the number of deaths from dementia – the second highest cause of death – had more than doubled since 2004.
Death from dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, had become more common as the population aged, the bureau said. Life expectancy for Australians increased in 2014, reaching 80 years for men and 84 for women.
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