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The vast tragedy at the core of Australia’s suicide rates 

If the government is really 'working towards a zero suicide goal', the whole system must change.

(Image: Getty)

Suicide is oblique. If you have ever stood on the active side of suicidal ideation or action, then you understand this statement as truth. For those who haven’t — those peeking over the oblique fence — then you cannot accept it as truth. For some, it is too distressing. For others, it’s simply too confusing. Murky. Opaque. Oblique.

Scott Morrison recently announced that his government is “working towards a zero suicide goal”. He said that access to mental health services is “a priority” for his government. He appointed National Mental Health Commission CEO Christine Morgan as the new “National Suicide Prevention Adviser” and, in a video posted on his Twitter account, Morrison called suicide “a curse on our country”.

If suicide is a “curse” on Australia then our government is comprised of a circle of necromancers whispering arcana from a skull-shaped tome. 

The government and its PR cronies can’t wade into this community’s swamp and expect hollow corporate catchphrases to do anything but sink, unless they acknowledge the tragedy at the core of Australia’s suicide rates: that the government is, in large part, responsible. There is blood on their hands.

For those of us who have been surviving on the other side of the fence for some time now, this is a fact we’ve long wished the government would acknowledge. For them not to, and for them to say things like suicide is “a curse on our country”, is to make us feel like the scourge — that we have sole agency in this crisis. 

To understand the failure of the government when it comes to suicide you first have to understand the DIY communities that exist as a response to their ineptitude. I used to run a small Facebook group called “Lavender Town Blues” where a little cadre of vulnerable people could post if they felt in need of help or, more simply, basic empathy. Group chats, meme pages, heck even D&D parties: the community has created a cornucopia of little worlds to help us navigate the minefield laid out by our minds, experiences, and (worse yet) our society and government.

We arrived at these spaces through trial, error, and exhaustion — and we’re not the only ones.

I have been navigating mental healthcare in this country for almost 20 years and I can say, with the crippling dependency of a chronic gambler, that it is absolute trash. I compare my experience to that of a gambler because mental healthcare in Australia is like playing the pokies: you never know what you’re going to get, but you’re probably going to lose money.

The path to, and implementation of, healthcare in this country is so inconsistent and influenced by random variables that any “how to get help” guide is about as useful as a map to the inland sea. Being, by now, an old hand at all this, I have found myself playing a guide to people new to the system again and again. I have a list of GPs that I know take mental health requests seriously, and likewise a list of GPs and psychs that do not. 

I recently helped a friend go through the proper channels to get anti-depressants only to have her told that she should just marry and settle down in the suburbs. She lost faith in the system immediately, and has stopped trying to get help. It takes so much energy to approach the system, let alone go through with it, and more often than not you are kicked in the shins at the finish line. Then what?

For many, seeking help is a financial impossibility. I am incredibly privileged: my parents are not rich, but without their financial and emotional support, I would be dead. I could not afford my medication, therapy, or most costly of all, proper diagnosis. Other people are not so lucky, and those are the friends and strangers that I see constantly slipping between the cracks. 

And if there’s anything that pulls a survivor back to the precipice of those cracks, it’s getting down on your hands and knees to try and pull another loved one out. 

To reach his “zero suicide” goal, Morrison is going to have to implement reforms that run counter to the fundamentals of his politics. He won’t just have to repeal robo-debt, he’ll have to refund it. He’ll have to raise Newstart and beg forgiveness. He’ll have to overhaul our healthcare system, and all but get rid of private health to make access to therapy, psychiatry, and medication affordable. He’ll have to act on the existential horror that is climate change. He’ll have to resettle our refugees. He’ll have to end the housing crisis. He’ll have to achieve justice for Indigenous Australians. He’ll have to reshape the culture that has shaped Australia’s identity for the past 200 years. And then some.

These are the big things he’ll have to do if he wants to brashly bandy around a term as vague in scope and implementation as “a zero suicide goal”. But just how sincere is Scott Morrison in regards to this matter, truly? Because from my side of the fence, it’s hard to tell. 

For anyone seeking help, Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue is 1300 22 4636.


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2 years ago

As a nations poverty level rises so does the suicide rate, drug useage and the crime rate, soon the wealthy will be living in gated communities with 24 hr security AKA the U.S, Papua new guinea and south Africa to mention a few. this is scomo `s dream and your nightmare suckers.

Gwen Clark
Gwen Clark
2 years ago

How sincere is Scott Morrison? He has all the sincerity of any failed ad man although after the recent election victory I might have to revise my opinion of his advertising skill.
What I can say is that the suicide prevention strategies in place are woefully inadequate. Particularly at times of personal crisis.
What I can say is that Morrison’s approach to policy and government add to the depression and malaise that affects day to day living. Too many are finding it harder and harder and unless you are rich enough to benefit from government largesse this is not changing. Ask anyone on the pension or Newstart.
Look at the government approach.
Pensions are unchanged, one of the worlds least generous and there are whispering of making eligibility tighter.
Newstart is a joke except for those on it.
Health costs, electricity and gas costs, rates…..almost everything…..are rising much faster than wage increases, pension increases and Newstart.
And even this week the government is flagging no change and telling everyone on these benefits how generous the government is being and why don’t you get a job……..despite that outcome being increasingly unlikely for those above 50.

So yes, I agree with the author. Unless the government actually addresses the underlying causes of suicide, financial stress being one of them then this is just a cynical ad mans empty headline grab. And we already know how likely the government is likely to address the underlying causes of poverty don’t we. They have already told us that.

Desmond Graham
Desmond Graham
2 years ago

Governments Throwing money at suicide prevention is like in ” investing in Lotto” – suicide is unpredictable and people in need don’t require government agencies from far away Canberra – they require local support, if family support is absent or the cause of the problem then the next local layer should be utilised – should all be about local help. Not following publicly funded processes – process does no end in action only lots of activity with no outcomes except activity.

My doctor tells me GPs time is limited by Medicare and if they spend too much time with a patient they get investigated and can lose their livelihood – so they have to flick mental health patients on. Talking to my doctor has been an eye opener Medicare pays 3 times the normal fee if they flick the mental health patients on [called mental health plan] rather than treat them. Also Medicare will only allow GPs to see a limited number of patients a day most people are not aware of that . Mental health is time consuming but it does’t pay the bills no matter how interested people are in mental health – that is why there is a proliferation of useless mental health charities to allow retired pollies to have a feel good experience. Tax deductible contribution is one way of saying we have failed so let us inject money other ways to try to assist rather than having proper delivery policies.
2 years ago
Reply to  Desmond Graham

I love your post Desmond. I just came across the article on Twitter. I agree with you totally.
We can see through the spin and know very well our brother died due to a completely inadequate GP/primary health care system and lack of govt responsibility for creating such a system. And yes, the large NGOs have many a retired poli or corporate trying to wash off their sins by sitting on these boards. I just wish there was a journalist brave enough to expose this truth.

2 years ago
Reply to  Desmond Graham

I think the suicide rate will go up under the mendacious bastards in Canberra. Most of them are devoid of empathy and attract wealth for themselves as their main consideration. In Queensland, outside Brisbane, mental health services are spasmodic or non existent. We also ignore the slow suicides, mainly by men, who drink themselves to death. In our small town I’ve seen at least a dozen blokes exit this way in the last 15 years.

Peter Schulz
Peter Schulz
2 years ago

This article is a good start, Patrick – especially your second-last paragraph. (A lot better than the pathetic discussion on QandA this week, where specific questions about what it is about our current culture/society that generates so much suicide were studiously avoided – in typical ABC/SBS fashion.) But the analysis needs to go even deeper.

My father grew up in poverty in the 1930’s, but throughout his life he had a keen sense of the individual being part of a community/society (in his terms: help, helping, being helped by others) – informed, no doubt, by his Christian faith.

Since then, we’ve had Margaret Thatcher (‘There is no such thing as society’ – just a dog-eat-dog collection of competing, selfish individuals). The ensuing neoliberalism has destroyed any sense of community – it’s everyone for himself/herself and empathy and compassion are for losers. You no longer have value as a person, only as an economic unit. And tough titty if the economy doesn’t need your economic unit.

Of course, we don’t call it ‘greed’ or ‘selfishness’. We dress it up as ‘aspiration’. Witness the recent federal election, where the loudest whingeing came from relatively privileged people worried about losing their perks of negative gearing and franking credits. These whingers (and the MSM and politicians who support them) seem pathetically oblivious to the fact that their lives are infinitely better than a host of other people who have not scored as well in the lottery of life.

Preventing suicide ideation might be a better idea than suicide management.

2 years ago

No words of mine can be added to the brilliance of this exposition.