Did Australia’s suicide rate fall over the last decade? The ABS says yes, significantly — a 17% fall in the rate per 100,000 people.

Two high-profile mental health professionals, Ian Hickie and John Mendoza, say not; indeed they accuse the ABS of at least being unhelpful or “spinning” the results. The criticism is because the base year for yesterday’s release, 2001, saw an unusually high number of suicides. Moreover, they suggest, the ABS doesn’t count suicides properly because of state processes for determining causes of death.

The media of course has an institutional bias against good news. “Revealed: Australia’s suicide epidemic” shrilled a Fairfax headline in 2009, although the article was considerably more sober. A decade ago The Guardian ran a story alleging that more British people killed themselves under Conservative Prime Ministers than under Labour. There’s also a long-standing media fascination with the purported link between the internet and youth suicide, via cyber-bullying, “promotion” of suicide online and alleged internet suicide pacts (which appears to be a particular obsession of both the British and Japanese media).

Such was the moral panic fomented by the idea of vulnerable people being encouraged to kill themselves by what they read online that a number of countries, including Australia, have passed laws in the last decade restricting free speech by banning the “counselling” or provision of advice about suicide online — a key reason why the euthanasia debate in Australia is stymied.

It’s hard to be critical of any mental health professional on the issue of suicide, and particularly youth suicide; for far too long Australia at the state and federal level hasn’t invested anywhere near remotely enough in mental health services, and we need the Hickies and Mendozas of the world to keep pushing the issue in public. But the evidence of ABS spin, or growing youth suicide in Australia, let alone of a “suicide epidemic” as per media outlets, or of a significant problem of understatement, isn’t there.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare looked at the recording of suicide statistics in 2009. The report noted that the ABS had repeatedly pointed out flaws in its methodology due to its unavoidable reliance on state and territory data about cause of death, which means some suicides aren’t included in the data because they are misclassified, or not classified correctly until later.

Moreover, there has only been a fully nation-wide National Coroners Information System operating since 2001. The result is that actual numbers of suicides, according to the AIHW, may be up to 16% higher than the data the ABS was using until 2007. After 2007, the ABS altered its processes to enable later classification or reclassification of suicides to be added to the data, which in the AIHW’s view would capture about half of the suicides not currently being picked up in the data.

Meaning, the ABS’s changes since 2007 have made the data more accurate, rather than less, for the most recent years.

Bearing that in mind, the 2010 rate per 100,000 people, of 10.6 (16.3 for men, 4.9 for women) is indeed less than in 2001 (12.7) but is higher than 2006, when the rate was 10.2.

But older data from the ABS suggests there’s no spin and that using 2001 doesn’t distort the picture. The 1993 rate was 11.9. In 1997, it reached 14.7. Remember, this is data that may be under-reporting suicides by up to 16%, according to the AIHW, compared to more current data that should be considerably more accurate.

What about youth suicide? The rate for persons aged 15-19 was 8.9 in 2001; in 2010 7.5. It was above 10 for much of the 1990s. If you want to correlate the impact of the internet with youth suicide, it appears to have significantly diminished it.

If there’s a group that doesn’t emerge well from the new data, it’s people over 40; for the cohorts 40-44 through to 60-64, suicide rates either fell only marginally or actually increased over the last decade, and at higher rates than younger people. It also happened across both genders, but more so with men. And in those groups, the rate of suicide really hasn’t changed much since the mid-1990s, although, again, we must bear in mind the pre-2007 data has a higher margin of error.

None of this is to suggest we’ve got the right level of investment in mental health, or that there’s any sort of “acceptable” level of suicide among otherwise healthy people, or that each suicide doesn’t inflict massive damage on family and friends. But understanding how the problem is tracking is always better than simply assuming it is always getting worse.

*For help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit this page for a detailed list of support services

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey