Why Doesn’t Australia Have A National Youth Suicide Prevention Policy?

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— Content Warning: This article contains discussion of suicide. — 

Right now suicide is the leading causing death for young people.

Between 2010 and 2020, the rate of suicide increased for young people aged 18 to 24. Young people also have the highest rates of hospitalisation for intentional self-harm. And those statistics are continuing to grow, particularly for young women. So why are we failing young people when we have extensive research and funding for suicide prevention in Australia?

Australia’s History Of Suicide Prevention

Youth suicide prevention efforts are fragmented in Australia, and a lack of policy consistency across 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 primarily focused on youth suicide, back in the 90s. It ran from 1995 to 1999 and during its time there was a decline in suicide in young men, and a minor yet noticeable impact in areas that “participated in local targeted suicide prevention activities” after the fact. But by 2000, the government moved away from targeting youth and the broader National Suicide Prevention Strategy was put in place — which is what we still have now.

“The federal government has chosen to go down this approach of having an all ages strategy. And so have all of the different jurisdictions apart from Tasmania previously,” Jo Robinson, head of suicide prevention research at Orygen, told Junkee.

How Is Our Current National Plan Failing Youth?

Jo said that over recent years there’s been “some stabilising of suicide rates in some sectors of the population, particularly in the adult population” but that we are seeing a “steady increase in suicide rates and rates of suicide attempt, suicidal ideation, and self-harm in young people”.

“So I think what that speaks too is the fact that these all-ages strategies and these all-ages plans and activities that occur underneath those, aren’t necessarily meeting the needs of young people.”

When we use the term young people for suicide prevention research, it’s generally 12 to 25 years old. This can capture a pretty turbulent and transitional time in a person’s life. At Orygen, one of Australia’s leading youth mental health organisations, researchers are interested in what suicide prevention looks like “at those different life points and those different transition points”.

“I really do think we’re failing young people by not having young people involved in developing these policies and implementing these policies in the first place. And I think the other really obvious gap in suicide prevention is when we are absolutely not capitalising on any of the benefits that technology or social media offers.”

What Would A Youth Specific Approach Look Like?

If we were to go backwards and install another national youth policy for suicide prevention like from the 90s, we can’t ignore the other socio-economic drivers that are sitting alongside suicide risk for young people.

Suicide prevention has always sat within the domain of the health and mental health sector, but Jo believes that if “we’ve got young people who can’t get into the job market, can’t put food on the table or can’t afford a roof over their heads” then that definitely has to be a part of suicide prevention policy.

“I think we also can’t talk about suicide prevention and young females if we’re not really willing to look at family based and gender based violence. We really need a joined up policy approach and we need to be brave enough, I think, to not rely on bright, shiny announceables when it comes to suicide prevention.”