The major parties have come under pressure to announce policies to address Australia’s rate of suicide. While Australia has succeeded in reducing suicide among some key at-risk groups, recent gains are in danger of being lost and there’s a growing problem of suicide among young women, the most recent data on causes of death reveal.
In March, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released its annual data set on causes of death in Australia, which includes statistics on intentional self-harm, giving us an insight into changing patterns around suicide among Australians.
Among men, the overall rate of suicide per 100,000 population fell from 20.1 in 2001 to 16 in 2006. It was 16.7 in 2013, but rose again to 18.5 in 2014. As is well known, men have a significantly higher suicide rate than women, and young men and men in their 30s are the most likely of all to suicide. However, it is among this group that the most progress has been made in reducing suicide.
Among men in their late 20s, the rate of suicide was over 30 per 100,000 in the early 2000s but fell below 30 in 2003 and then fell below 20 in 2006, rose again and then fell again; it was 19.4 in 2014. Similarly, while suicide among men in their early 30s has risen again recently, at 26.8 it is still well below the 30-plus levels of the early 2000s. Men in their late 30s, too, now take their own lives at levels well below those of the early 2000s: 24.8 in 2014 compared to 32.4 in 2001. Teenage males have fallen a little, and men in their early 20s have dropped significantly, although the rate lifted back up above 20 per 100,000 in 2014.
Among other males, however, the news isn’t so good. Men in their 40s kill themselves at about the same rate as in the early part of last decade, and gains made in reducing the suicide rate have disappeared since 2010. Men in their 50s are taking their own lives at substantially higher levels than in 2001, with suicide rates reaching 29 per 100,000, while among older men the news is mixed, with some age groups falling and others rising a little.
Among girls and women, however, the news is almost all bad. Only three five-year female age cohorts have shown declines in suicide rates, and usually by only small amounts; the rest have remained steady since 2001, or risen. Suicide among girls and women aged 15-19 has risen from below four per 100,000 in the early 2000s to over five in 2014. Among women in their early 20s it has risen from four-five per 100,000 15 years ago to over seven, while rates among women in their 40s have also increased.
Clearly, however, females remain far below males in terms of the proportion of women who take their lives. They also use different methods: over a quarter of women take drug overdoses compared to less than 10% of men; 56% of the latter hang themselves compared to 44% of women; 9% of men use firearms compared to less than 2% of women.
And there’s no evidence of progress in addressing indigenous suicide rates. In 2014, suicide was the fifth leading cause of death among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, compared to 13th among non-indigenous Australians, and proportionally twice as many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people die from suicide as in the non-indigenous community. The actual number of suicides among indigenous communities (143) was up from 97 in 2009, although men form the same proportion –around three-quarters — of suicides in both indigenous and non-indigenous communities.
The dramatically higher proportion of indigenous suicide is reflected in the location of such events: at around 22 per 100,000, “rest of Northern Territory” (i.e. outside the capital city) is the most prolific location for suicide, ahead of “rest of Western Australia” (18.1 per 100,000) and “rest of Queensland” (14.9). Sydney, at 8.3, has the lowest urban death rate from suicide, just ahead of Melbourne (8.6), while Hobart has the worst, at 14.1. In most states, there’s a four-five point gap between capital city suicide rates and non-capital rates.
There’s also been a particularly disturbing increase in the number of children under 15 taking their own lives. The numbers aren’t huge, but growing — it was around 10 in 2005, but is now over 20. Suicide among boys has remained steady (there was an unexplained spike in 2013, but the number fell again in 2014) but suicide among girls has gone from being virtually non-existent to 15 in 2015. While the lack of data prevents an accurate assessment, this appears to be driven by child suicide in indigenous communities. Between 2010-14 there were 22 suicides in the five-17 age cohort (that’s slightly different to the numbers quoted above) in “rest of NT” and 28 in “rest of WA” compared to 48 in Sydney, 54 in Melbourne and 43 in Brisbane, a terrifying result given the vastly different population sizes involved.
Whether, as some have speculated, the rise of social media and the way it facilitates bullying may be playing a role in the suicide of girls and young women isn’t clear. However, child suicide in indigenous communities is clearly an emerging problem.
What’s not explained in the numbers, of course, and will never be conveyed in any statistics, is the loss and grief of the now nearly 3000 suicides in Australia each year: each one a person loved and now missed, each one a sibling, a child or parent, a husband or wife, a brother or sister, a friend, each one a cherished face gone from a life they couldn’t face continuing.
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