A call for a more compassionate, whole-of-government approach to suicide prevention that responds early to distress

Posted 16th November 2020 in Updates from the Prime Minister's National Suicide Prevention Adviser

Today, the Prime Minister publicly released the Interim Advice documents prepared to shape Australia’s suicide prevention approach. This will enable further consultation to occur over the coming weeks to inform the Final Advice

The Interim Advice consists of three interrelated reports: (1) Compassion First, detailing the experiences of people with lived experience of suicide; (2) Interim Advice Report containing 13 in-principle recommendations; and (3) Shifting the Focus, outlining a whole-of-government approach to suicide.   

We know from our data that 3,318 Australians died by suicide last year; seven men and two women each day.  We also estimate that another 180 people each day will find their situation so unbearable that they attempt suicide and many more people will experience suicidal distress. Behind each of these numbers is a person, a journey, and a network of other people.

This year in my role as National Suicide Prevention Adviser, I have had the opportunity to talk to many people across our community who have lived experience, and indeed lived expertise, of suicide. It is their experiences and their collective knowledge that has shaped the Interim Advice more than any other source of enquiry this year.

The Compassion First report captures the voices of close to 2,000 people with lived experience of suicidal behaviour, particularly those who have survived attempts or lived with suicidal distress. 

What they have clearly said is that what we need is connected, compassionate and supportive responses to the underlying distress, adversity and trauma so many people experience, rather than a medicalised and crisis-driven approach.

Suicidal distress often stems from cumulative pain, disadvantage, disconnection and trauma that can build up over time. It can also occur in the context of a sudden change or a period of acute distress often linked to adverse life events or transitions. We need to act much earlier than we have been to stop people reaching the point of crisis.      

The Interim Advice calls for a national whole-of-government approach that strengthens and builds on what our health systems can offer. To be effective, we need all jurisdictions and portfolios working together.

It is clear that we need to go to where people are and respond much earlier than we have been. That means developing the workforce and embedding support in our family courts, in employment services, in schools and workplaces, in our family and social services.

It also means using the levers of government and partnerships with other agencies to reduce and respond to the social and economic drivers of distress that are often deeply rooted in the social determinants of health – job security, economic security, safety from violence and abuse, meaningful participation and social connection. 

In our national response, it is imperative that we consider all of the factors that may increase distress and ensure our approach works for men as well as for women, because we know the impacts for each can very different and the places they seek support can be very different. 

We need to ensure we have a focus on younger people who are experiencing significant impacts and higher levels of self-harming behaviour, but also keep a sharp focus on older men and men in their 30s, 40s and 50s who have the highest rates of suicide in this country. 

Our approach must work in urban centres as well as rural and remote communities and it must include a focus on the groups that we know to experience disproportionate impacts. This includes, but is not limited to, the LGBTQI community, those from a culturally and linguistically diverse background and groups such as veterans, emergency services workers, caregivers and those bereaved by suicide and communities impacted by multiple adversities. 

There is no doubt that we must empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to drive their own solutions to suicide – bringing the best of social and emotional wellbeing, healing, community and clinical approaches together. We recognise that local knowledge and cultural leadership and governance are key.  

A truly whole-of-government and whole-of-community approach will help us to achieve all of this, but we must have the right structures and enablers in place. This includes lived experience knowledge and leadership as central to the approach, growing and developing the workforce to ensure compassionate and contemporary approaches are used across all touch points, and a much stronger use of data, agreed outcomes and evidence to set priorities and drive accountability. It also means having the right governance at the national and regional level to drive a truly coordinated approach.

What I have witnessed this year is a genuine commitment and goodwill across government portfolios and across our organisations and communities to work together. In many ways, the COVID-19 response has shown what is possible when the health and wellbeing of a nation is everyone’s priority. The Interim Advice builds on that commitment and goodwill, but the time to shift our approach is now.

I am looking forward to working with governments, the suicide prevention sector, other agencies and communities over the coming weeks to test and refine the recommendations.  

I would like the thank the many individuals, organisations and advisory groups we have engaged with this year and also thank those who have contributed to research inputs informing the advice. 

If you or someone you know needs support, contact on the services outlined below:

• Lifeline – 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au 

• Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 224 636 or suicidecallbackservice.org.au 

• Kids Helpline – 1800 551 800 or kidshelpline.com.au

• Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au

• QLife - 1800 184 527 or qlife.org.au

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Updates from the Office of the Prime Minister’s National Suicide Prevention Adviser and Taskforce

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