The sort of conversation we should be having about suicide

Online tools increase therapy access for students at risk of suicide. Ginny/flikr

Last year almost 300 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 took their own life. That’s here in Australia. In the lucky country.

Suicide is now the biggest killer of our young people and accounts for one in four of all deaths in this age group. Officially, suicide accounts for about 2,200 Australian deaths a year, though the real figure is thought to be much higher.

Suicide is a silent killer whose footprints leave little trace. This culture of secrecy not only increases the risk of suicide, it also hampers the ability of the bereaved families and friends to recover from their loss.

Unlike the road toll, which has reduced by one third to 1,600 deaths a year and continues to decline, suicide remains a taboo subject and is sidelined in social policy.

When a 14-year old boy dies in an accident involving a stolen car it is front page news. Governments and the media quickly revisit their road toll campaigns, up the funding, promote driver awareness and encourage debate.

When the same 14 year old’s classmate dies by suicide there is silence and active suppression of the true story. We need that silence to end.

The current media guidelines for the reporting of suicide, though similar to those elsewhere, are outdated. And the Australian Press Council’s review of media’s handling of suicide is likely to determine the guidelines are misunderstood.

As a society we remain reluctant to talk about suicide for fear it will inspire “copy cat” behaviour. We have warned off journalists and editors who believe that the issue cannot be routinely covered.

As a result the media fails to bear witness to the corrosive effects of these daily deaths on the family and friends of those who take their lives.

Our lack of conversation around the topic has only endorsed the silence that surrounds our young people who often feel too ashamed, too guilty and too stigmatised to put up their hand and ask for help.

They are trapped in a bubble: a cone of silence which neither they nor those around them can easily penetrate.

If a young person does feel suicidal it is likely that they are frightened by these feelings. But so are their peers and parents.

The taboo colludes with the natural desire of parents and friends to hope for the best and assume all is well even though real clues are present.

By asking a young person about these feelings we will give them permission to talk, and in most cases they will feel relieved and better able to overcome periods of suicidality. If effective help is provided suicidal urges almost always subside.

There is no evidence to suggest that sensitive and accurate reporting of suicide inspires others to follow. The exception is the celebrity suicide which the media typically does cover.

As with the road toll, the media should keep and frequently report a tally of the lives lost to suicide through a national campaign backed and funded by the federal government.

Along with a high-profile prevention campaign, we need to highlight the link between mental illness and suicide and provide a range of effective, evidence based treatments.

Suicide is an early manifestation of unspoken, unrecognised or unacknowledged mental ill health in so many cases. But two thirds of Australians with mental illness never receive any help or access to health care.

A high proportion of people who are eventually treated for mental ill health have attempted suicide prior to eventually getting help.

Part of the solution is to find ways to better communicate with our young people. This means communicating with them in their language.

A new wave of web-based suicide intervention programs are starting to emerge. “e-therapy” is one of a number of innovative tools being developed to better assist young people in crises.

We are also developing a new web-based intervention specifically for school students at risk of suicide, a generally neglected population when it comes to intervention research.

There are real solutions available to us to significantly reduce the numbers of Australians who needlessly die by suicide. But to solve this problem, we must first talk about it.

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