|The answers to these questions are complex but one thing is quite clear: we need to find new and better ways to reach young people in distress. And, at the wider community level, we men need to spend some real time in deep reflection.
We also need to face up to a few other daunting facts. Perhaps, more disturbing is the statistic for attempted suicides: while the academic literature varies on this point, on conservative estimates around 13,000 15-24 year-old Australians attempt suicide each year. That says nothing of all the related suffering endured by friends and families.
For the record, it’s important to note a few other hard facts. While the research on suicide attempts is not extensive, the number of suicide attempts for young men is said to be comparable with attempts by young women - it’s just that the blokes choose more "efficient" ways to do themselves in. It may also be part of the explanation why across all age groups men suicide at rates between three and five times that for women in comparable age groups.
But we are mistaken if we think the suicide problem is just one for young men. Even though the youth suicide rates have increased dramatically in recent decades, it’s tempting to see suicide as only a "problem of youth". In 1995, the suicide rate for Australian men aged 25-34 was in fact 30 per cent higher than for the 15-24 age group and the rate for men 35-44 was 10 per cent higher than for the 15-24 age group.
It should be pointed out, however, that for middle aged men (and women) the suicide rate has dropped significantly in recent decades which explains why, taking into account the increase in the young male rate, roughly speaking the overall suicide rate has remained relatively stable for the some time now.
But horrific as these statistics are, they are just that, statistics.
A few years ago I witnessed some of the most disturbing sights I have ever seen after my cousin unsuccessfully tried to end his life on our farm. I don’t expect to see anything as shocking as that again. And there are other people who saw things far, far more horrific than I. It’s not appropriate for me to go into the details but Johnny spent months in intensive care having his face rebuilt (in a fashion) before he went home for a couple of days respite before he was to return to hospital for another round of operations. He had only been home a day or two before he got up early one morning and stumbled to the railway line that runs past the farm. The morning train ended his life. Johnny’s story is not unique – there are many young Australians living in rural parts of the country who feel desperately isolated and unable to find a way out of their pain.
Johnny’s level of suffering is near incomprehensible - what greater suffering can there be than that which leads a person to take their own life? .But he was not alone in his suffering and it didn’t end with his death. The effects on a family are devastating. Parents and relatives often hold themselves to blame but the ripple effects extend even further than that. What of Johnny’s friends, the police, the train driver, the ambulance officers, the doctors and nurses, the social workers, the psychologists and psychiatrists?
Hopefully some good can come of Johnny’s death and the death of many other young Australians. It was in fact Johnny’s death coupled with some generous help and advice from Daniel Petre then working at Microsoft that led me to become involved in the development of a proposal for the Reach Out! youth suicide prevention project on the Internet.
The project is to be run by the New Australia Foundation which is a recently established not-for-profit organisation focused on young Australians and national healing.
After 15 months lobbying, the Federal Government has agreed to provide the Foundation with $450,000 start-up funding. It’s great that the Government has agreed to back such a bold, new initiative. The project, which should be up and running before the end of the year, is targeted at three groups: young people, family and friends and professionals. The idea is to use the latest that technology has to offer to provide information and advice, to link up the many local community groups wanting to do something in their area, to provide support to those who work at the coalface and to facilitate youth suicide prevention activities right around Australia. And while it’s ostensibly targeted at young people much of the information and services provided are equally applicable to older people
The Reach Out! project is a world first and one we hope will be taken up in other countries. At the recent International Association for Suicide Prevention Congress in Adelaide, there was enormous interest in the project with experts from around the world very keen to out more about how the Reach Out! model might be applied in their countries. At the Congress, the Reach Out! presentation was one of the very few to receive an award of "Outstanding Paper".
As I’ve worked on the Reach Out! project, I’ve been staggered by the number of people who have admitted to attempting suicide or having a close friend or relative who has. It’s heart wrenching to see how much suffering there is in our midst and it screams out for a compassionate response on all fronts.
But, thankfully, it’s not overwhelming: there are some very strong positives. First, as many as nine in ten young people who attempt suicide do not want to die - it’s just that they see no way out, no end to their suffering. This means if we can reach out to these young people and somehow show them a glimmer of hope that the great pain and confusion they’re experiencing can be endured then we will have given them much - a reason for living. And if we can do that I have no doubt their gratitude will sustain us for a long time to come.
Second, it is encouraging that Governments are now becoming very active in supporting suicide prevention. This is a sign that the community is keen to deal with this most pressing of problems.
Finally, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the field is littered with survivors - there are literally tens of thousands of Australians who have attempted suicide but have found some way to struggle on in their lives. Sometimes they’ve done it with assistance from people who have been working away in suicide prevention for decades. Sometimes they’ve done it on their own. For me, these are Australia’s great unsung heroes. Their struggle is, for the most part, not visible, but when reflected upon it is deeply inspiring and a succour to the many people working in the field of suicide prevention.