Why doesn’t Australia have a national youth suicide prevention policy?


– Content warning: This article contains discussion of suicide. —

Currently, suicide is the leading cause of death among young people.

Between 2010 and 2020, the suicide rate has increased among young people aged 18 to 24. Young people also have the highest rates of hospitalization for intentional self-harm. And these statistics keep growing, especially for young women. So why are we failing young people when we have extensive research and funding for suicide prevention in Australia?

The history of suicide prevention in Australia

Youth suicide prevention efforts are fragmented in Australia, and the lack of policy coherence between governments has played a huge role in this.

Australia was actually one of the first countries to develop a national strategic approach to suicide prevention focusing primarily on youth suicide, back in the 1990s. It ran from 1995 to 1999 and during that time , there was a decline in suicide among young men, and a minor but noticeable impact in areas that “participated in targeted local suicide prevention activities” afterward. But in 2000 the government stopped targeting young people and the National Suicide Prevention Strategy was put in place – which is what we still have today.

“The federal government has chosen to take this approach of having an all-ages strategy. And it’s been the same for all the different jurisdictions except Tasmania before,” Jo Robinson, head of suicide prevention research at Orygen, told Junkee.

How is our current national plan failing young people?

Jo said that over the past few years there has been “some leveling off in suicide rates in some sectors of the population, particularly in the adult population”, but that we are seeing a “steady increase in suicide rates”. suicide and rates of suicide attempts, suicidal ideation and self-harm among young people”.

“So I think it also speaks to the fact that these all-ages strategies and these all-ages plans and activities that are happening below don’t necessarily meet the needs of young people.”

When we use the term youth for suicide prevention research, it generally means 12 to 25 years old. It can capture quite a turbulent and transitory period in a person’s life. At Orygen, one of Australia’s leading youth mental health organisations, researchers are looking at what suicide prevention looks like “at these different times in life and at these different transition points”.

“I really think we are failing young people by not involving young people in the development of these policies and the implementation of these policies in the first place. And I think the other really obvious gap in suicide prevention is when we absolutely don’t capitalize on any of the benefits that technology or social media offers.

What would a youth-specific approach look like?

If we were to go back and install another national youth policy for suicide prevention like in the 90s, we cannot ignore the other socio-economic drivers that coexist with youth suicide risk.

Suicide prevention has always been the purview of the health and mental health sector, but Jo believes that if “we have young people who can’t get into the workforce, who can’t put food on the table or who cannot afford a roof over their head”, then this must definitely be part of the suicide prevention policy.

“I think we also can’t talk about suicide prevention and young women if we’re not really willing to look at domestic and gender-based violence. We really need a joint policy approach and we have to be brave enough, I think, not to rely on shiny, shiny announcements on suicide prevention.