Research Suicide — 26 May 2016

It’s no secret that suicide is the biggest killer of young people, but new research has found a link between how we work and mental illness.

Insecure and unstable work is one of the biggest risk factors for suicide, the research found.

Mental health experts have compiled data on 28 electorates around the country.

It found that residents of areas that are going through an economic transition – away from blue collar and primary industries like farming – are among the most vulnerable.

Fly-in, fly-out (aka FIFO) workers in mining are also particularly vulnerable to self-harm, the researchers said.

“We’re seeing a reduction in jobs, but also reductions in terms and conditions, so called… precarious employment conditions, less security,” a former government mental health advisor, John Mendoza, said.

“If you want to give people a mental health problem, if you want to raise their psychological distress, what do you do? Dose them up on uncertainty. Dose them up on fear. That’s what causes mental illness. That’s what causes people to get to the point where they see no other option but to take their own life.”

Of the electorates studied, Casey and Corangamite in regional Victoria, and Longman, north of Brisbane, fare the worst.

“We’re on a steep trajectory”

In many of the highlighted areas the number of suicides exceeds the road toll. Though comprehensive statistics on suicide are still sketchy, experts believe there’s been a 22% increase in the number of people taking their own lives in the last decade.

“We have a national emergency on suicide,” Professor Mendoza said. “We are on a steep trajectory in relation to suicide and self-harm in Australia at the moment, and we’re sleepwalking into a national disaster.”

John Mendoza and the former head of the National Mental Health Commission, Ian Hickie, came to Parliament House in Canberra today to urge politicians to pledge to make suicide prevention one of the key issues in the next term of Parliament.

Professor Hickie spoke to PM Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday morning. The PM said he was committed to stamping out suicide.

“That is why we are putting more money than ever, particularly into front line primary health mental health services,” Mr Turnbull said. “This is a very heartfelt issue. I can assure you it’s a tough issue, we will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to improve, protect and advance the mental health of Australia.”

Labor says its committed to mental health, too. But neither major party has announced their policies in this area. Mental health has, so far, barely rated a mention during the federal election campaign.

 

Experts want politicians from all major parties to commit to implementing the findings of a major report into mental health, released last year. One of the recommendation was setting up suicide prevention trials in 12 regional towns.

Training GPs and clinicians on how to best to treat suicidal patients is another recommendation.

Gold Coast mum, Cheryl Frank, thinks it’s a good idea for doctors to have more training in suicide prevention. She says the health care system desperately needs to change.

Her son Joseph had been suffering episodes of severe depression since he turned 18. Three years ago, he had another episode, but was discharged from hospital without a mental health assessment because he posed a low risk.

“On Saturday morning at 1am I found my beautiful son dead on his bed. But luckily I was with a policeman who was able to resuscitate him,” Cheryl Franks told Hack. “This whole episode could have been avoided.”

“We sought help, but the help we received further confirmed Joseph’s belief that he was not worthy of care, that he was worthless and that he was attention-seeking,” she said.

“Someone has to do something”

Kerrie Keppa knows more about suicide than anyone should. In 2014, her 21-year old son, Chris, took his own life. She’s also lost two sisters, a brother and a nephew to suicide.

“The thought of another family going through what we did just breaks my heart,” she said. “Someone has to do something, and if that has to be me, well so be it. I’ll continue to be the voice.”

Kerrie Keppa set up a Facebook page for Chris after he died. The post went viral, with seven million shares. Now the page has more than 32,000 likes.

Like Joseph Franks, Chris sought help for his illness. But the hospital he went to – which knew his history of mental illness – turned him away.

“They sent him away with ten valiums and said ‘get a good night’s sleep’ and ‘he’ll be fine tomorrow’, and ten days later he died,” Ms Keppa said. “I told them of my family history and said ‘please don’t take this lightly’, and they didn’t listen to me, they didn’t listen to him. And we’ve lost him now.”

The role of technology in treating mental illness

Jane Burns from the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre says new technology can help in the early detection of mental illness.

One of her researchers, Sally Bradford, has developed an app for patients visiting mental health professionals for the first time.

She’s found that patients are more likely to talk about risk factors electronically – ie. through the app – than face to face with a doctor.

“Young people who were given the app to fill out before their session, knowing the information would go to the clinician, were two to ten times more likely to disclose issues around substance abuse, their sexuality, self-harm. That’s before they’ve even walked through the door to the clinician,” Sally Bradford said.

This article first appeared on ‘ABC – Triple J Hack’ on 24 May 2016.

 

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