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Support, not research: How to lower Australia's high suicide rate

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Suicide is a major health emergency (image via psypost.org).

Governments of all stripes must better fund frontline suicide prevention services to save lives, writes Gerry Georgatos.

A couple of years ago, I fought to save the life of a six-year-old child. To make sure she never attempted again.

This child is doing well but that was because I was able to travel to her, in the heart of our continent, to one of our remotest regions.

I was shocked that one so young would contemplate suicide and attempt. At the time I believed, or hoped, that I would never come across again a child so young and suicidal.

Recently, I dedicated long-haul support to another suicidal six-year-old child — this time in one of our large cities.

Most recently, I have supported children who were suicidal. They were six, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen and fourteen years of age.

Without dedicated support, some of them would not be with us today.

There was one island community where a 13-year-old girl took her life. Her 11-year-old brother found her. The island has mainstream services, albeit small, but none visited the family, citing the need to provide the grieving family "space".

More than three weeks later I travelled to the island. I refused to leave the island until I met the family. I drove from the main community to an outstation near a smaller community and met the family. I was the first to do so. I have supported them ever since. That was three years ago. I helped relocate the family to Darwin, where the children attend school. I visit them every time I am in Darwin.

Long have I called for and argued for assertive outreach, for intense psychosocial supports, for through-care and aftercare. I continue to call for these because with professionals personally supporting those in need, we can reduce the suicide toll.

It breaks my heart that one Government after another does not heed and instead to be seen to be doing something funds research, which delivers more of the same "recommendations".

One in 50 Australian deaths is a suicide. And more precisely, one in 17 First Nations deaths is a suicide.

Australia, with more than 3,000 suicides a year, has a higher suicide rate than the United Kingdom.

Australia’s First Nations peoples endure one of the world’s highest suicide rates. My heart broke when I learned that the Federal Government instead of funding what will save from suicide our young and older, that they approved $35 million for further "research" on Indigenous and youth suicides.

The study of suicide is not suicide prevention.

This $35 million research spend follows the more than $40 million wasted on the dozen "suicide prevention" trial sites. Australia has been deluged with thirty years of relentless research with respect to suicide prevention. As a nation, we have endured thirty years of the suicide crises unabated and uninterrupted.

Suicide is Australia’s leading cause of unnatural deaths. During the last decade, Australia has had among the world’s highest increases in its suicide toll, by 33% — and for First Nations Australians by 60%. Australia’s suicide toll is significantly higher than the road deaths toll and more than 30 times the domestic violence homicides toll.

The majority of the suicide toll is intersected by socioeconomic disadvantage where within the accumulation of life stressors are more pronounced and for some within the travesty of poverty narratives there culminate a firmament like the perception of inescapability from these stressors.

Suicide prevention workers are being relentlessly let down by Commonwealth, State and Territory governments by failing to offer sufficient financial support. Those who are let down, betrayed, are those whose very lives depended on what the funding should have been invested in.

Governments have consistently failed to deliver results based on what the evidence compels.

During the last year, I have assisted people with lived experience gain a voice in our nation’s media. This includes suicide-affected families and individuals – young and older – who have attempted. I did this so the nation could hear straight from the heart — hear more than what deskbound researchers can tell us.

These people have asked for their voices to be heard, to tell their own story, to unpack for readers and listeners their narrative, the arc of their issues. They are more than just betrayed by the spend on more research: they are angry.  

I spend my days keeping children – and those older – alive. There must be no further spending on so-called research on suicide prevention. I do research without any funding. The raw data I publish regularly, that I avail to everyone, I do at no remunerative benefit. I will not accept funding and will not take away a quid away from the potential of suicide prevention.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on suicide prevention during the last decade. Arguably the near $80 million recently misspent, if spent on outreach service for First Nations Australians for instance, many more lives would've been saved.

Each year of this century, the First Nations suicide toll has increased. We can, for the first time this century, reduce the toll and in so doing inspire the nation. We can reduce the Australian youth suicide toll.

We know the elevated risk groups: population and categorical. We know the ways forward. We need governments to scrub up with the quid but not to researching suicide. Suicide prevention research is paper thin, repetitive, rebadged, the same old recommendations. 

The youngest suicide I have responded to was of a nine-year-old child. The youngest attempted suicide I have responded to is of a six-year-old. Our governments must be steadfast in a salt-of-the-earth nobility to refuse primarily funding researchers and instead fund outreach, fund services, fund the capacity for as many of the affected to improve their life circumstances.

There are many who we have kept alive by being there for them, by improving their lives, by validating their trauma and subsequently disabling their trauma. We were and are there for them.

I would love for you to hear their stories and to warm our nation on the authentic ways forward, to galvanise more of what is needed. May they be heard by State and Territory and Commonwealth Governments. There is no legacy more important than the one that improves the lot of others to the point of saving lives. 

I remember everyone that we lose to suicide but foremost I remember those lost to suicide that we could have helped if we had been resourced to do so.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher. He is also the national coordinator of the suicide prevention focused National Critical Response Trauma Recovery Project and the former coordinator of the suicide postvention National Indigenous Critical Response Service.

Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.

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