How to stem the suicide rate?

More than 3,000 people take their own lives in Australia each year. And the problem is only getting worse amongst younger age groups.


Figures compiled by the Victorian Coroners Court, for example, show 13 young people aged under 18 took their lives between the start of January and the end of March in Victoria this year. The number of youth suicides for the same period over the past four years varied between two and six, and the annual number of young people dying by suicide over those four years in full ranged between 15 and 23.


In 2021, nationally, there were 3,144 suicides, an average of about nine deaths per day while 322 young people aged between 18 and 24 took their own lives. There were 112 suicides among children and adolescents, aged 17 and below with the majority of deaths in those aged 15 to 17. 


Speaking on ABC radio, Victorian State Coroner John Cain said the increase in youth suicides was of “great concern”. “The drivers of suicide are complex, and we must remember that behind each of these deaths is a unique personal story,” he said. “For each of the families the loss is immeasurable.”


Psychiatrist Patrick McGorry said the data was the tip of a much bigger iceberg. “The trend will continue because there’s a rising tide of mental ill health in young people and at the same time, our ability to respond to it is greatly hampered,” he said.


He said progress was being made to address mental health issues among young people, but not quickly enough.


Victor Parachin writes that loneliness, homelessness, depression and other mental health issues are rising, despite many people living a more affluent lifestyle. And he believes the growth in social media and new technologies is not helping.


“It’s estimated that for every suicide death around six or more ‘suicide survivors’ – that is, family members and friends ­– are left to come to terms with the tragedy. For those left behind the pain can be unbearable,” Mr Parachin said.


Here are some tips on how to help those grieving a suicide death.


Caring. Show up and let them know that you care. Although the stigma attached to suicide is softening, survivors continue to feel blemished and isolated. That’s why it’s important to make your presence felt as soon as you learn a family member or friend has experienced a suicide death. If you are geographically distant, call, text or send an email of support. If you are local, then simply be there – at the home, at the funeral service.


Listening. Plan to listen far more than you speak. Any questions you ask should be for purposes of clarification and not intrusive or invasive. Rabbi Earl Grollman, author of Suicide: Prevention; Intervention, Postvention, states: “Bereaved people need to express their emotions. They can be encouraged to talk when others say What are you feeling? … Tell me what is happening with you. … It must be very hard on you. Friends should focus on where they are. Accept their moods. Friends are not there to judge but to listen.”


Saying. Keep in mind that suicide grievers are struggling with a wide variety of confusion and conflicting emotions such as anger, guilt, regret, shock, denial, emptiness. Avoid adding to their pain by making trite clichés and meaningless platitudes no matter how well intentioned they may be.


When reaching out to a suicide griever choose your words carefully so that they heal rather than hurt.


Understanding. While there are many common elements of grief after a loved one has died, suicide grieving has added and different components adding complexity to the grief process. These are the four main challenges.


First, there is the suddenness of the death. Suicide is often unexpected leaving no space to say goodbye or to resolve any lingering issues.


Second, there is the anguishing question of “why”. Survivors show a frantic need to know why the suicide happened. There can be a desperate and relentless search for clues before there is recognition that one may never know why or fully understand the act.


Third, there can be acute guilt which is self-assigned. Both family members and friends experience intense guilt driven by “if only I had noticed; if only I hadn’t said that; if only I had said that; if only I had been home,” etc. Supporters can try to gently guide grievers to recognise that they are not responsible for the person’s decision to end their life.


Fourth, there is the social stigma attached to a suicide. Suicide survivors have to deal with a long history of stereotyping, mistrust, judgment, blaming and avoidance.


Recommending. “There are many general grief support groups, but those focused on suicide appear to be much more valuable. In a small pilot study that surveyed 63 adult suicide survivors about their needs and the resources they found helpful, 94% of those who had participated in a suicide grief support group found it moderately or very helpful, compared with only 27% of those who had attended a general grief group. The same study found that every survivor who had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with another suicide survivor found it beneficial.”


Remembering. Grief can be triggered at any time and on special days, i.e., Christmas, Easter, the New Year, Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, as well as birthdays and anniversaries. Remember to reach out on these days. Even a simple text, email or mailed card can go a long way to lifting some of the anxiety and stress survivors feel on special days.


Supporting. Be there for the long haul, for the entire journey through grief. The late Rabbi Earl Grollman said: “The survivor-victims often need to talk about their loved one for months and years –not for just a few days following the funeral. Healing is a long, long process. Friends need to continue to call and visit. Survivor-victims desperately need continuing love, support and concern.”


Footnote: Victor Parachin is a US-based grief counsellor and religious minister. Comments by the state coroner John Cain and Patrick McGorry courtesy ABC Radio. Figures provided by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.


Beyond Blue can be contacted at 1300 22 4636 and LifeLine Australia on 13 11 14.


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