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Wednesday, 6 July 2011
Page: 7920

Mr CHESTER ( Gippsland ) ( 16:32 ): There are a lot of issues that get debated in this place, and they seem to take on life-and-death proportions inside the Canberra bubble of politicians, media commentators and bureaucrats. But today I am thankful for the opportunity to talk about an issue that really is of life-and-death proportions, and that is the appalling suicide rate in our nation and the need to take more action to reduce both the impact of suicide and suicide attempts within our community.

I am concerned primarily that it is an issue that we rarely talk about, even in this place. I happened to do a bit of a search through Hansard to see what other people have been saying about the issue of suicide in recent times. It surprised me that it has been mentioned only eight times over both chambers in the past two years. That is not meant to be a reflection on anyone at all; it just surprised me that there has not been much of a conversation in this place about the issue itself.

I would like to congratulate the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing for its report, Before it's too late. I also note that the document really does complement the Senate's report from last year titled The hidden toll: suicide in Australia. Although I was not part of the inquiry, I have read through both reports and I must say that the contents should be ringing alarm bells throughout this building and right across our nation.

I say at the outset—and other members have noted this as well—that it is a very complex and difficult challenge for us to deal with, and there is plenty of good work that has been done at many different levels in our community and by members of parliament. But we have such a very long way to go, and we need to challenge the taboo in raising this topic for a broader national conversation. One of our greatest challenges is to reduce or remove the stigma about suicide and to talk about it in a responsible and rational manner. I believe we need this national conversation because staying silent simply has not worked. I welcome this opportunity to speak in relation to the report by the Standing Committee on Health and Ageing.

My own experiences in relation to suicide through my previous career as a newspaper journalist perhaps highlight the point that I am trying to make. As a journalist on police rounds you would often be told about a death at the police station. But there was a policy in place within the media network and within our own newspaper not to report such incidents. The nearest comparison I can make is the old saying: if a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a person commits suicide and no-one is allowed to talk about it, do their family and friends ever really get to grieve? Although the answer, I think, is self-evident—of course they grieve—if suicide remains such a taboo subject in our community and friends and family are not really allowed to talk about it and family members are too ashamed to admit the actual cause of death, how does the grieving process really get started? Also, if we are not prepared to talk about it and get a better understanding of what happened, how do we as a community learn from that experience.

I take up the case study mentioned today by the member for Hasluck in what I thought was a terrific speech to the parliament. He highlighted some of the very real concerns where the family and friends of suicide victims—the ones who are left behind—have so many questions about what they could have done. Was there something they may have missed? For those of us who have never experienced a mental illness it is very difficult even to understand why a person would take their own life. Sometimes there are simply no reasons. The previous speaker mentioned some of the risk factors, and there are risk factors that are very well known. But on other occasions there are simply no explanations. Sometimes it really does make no sense at all.

As with any problem, if we can measure it we should be able to manage it. That is an issue in this case because we are talking about something—the suicide death rates in Australia—about which we do not know the full extent of the problem. The official statistics put the suicide rate in Australia at around about 2,000 to 2,200 people per year, but I have read reports in which estimates were put forward that the figure could be as much as 16 per cent higher, which means we could be talking about suicide deaths in the order of 3,000 people per year. Although this confusion is regrettable, it is also understandable because it is very difficult for the authorities involved to be determining the intent when assessing the cause of death in circumstances such as car accidents or drug overdoses. It is very difficult in the absence of compelling evidence like a suicide note to know for sure that the person intended to end their own life. Also, there is a stigma attached to a suicide and therefore pressure, whether it is implied or real, to protect the reputation of the surviving family members or friends, particularly in regional settings, where people get to hear about the suicide and wonder what was wrong and what was going on behind the scenes. Questions are asked, particularly in a smaller regional setting. I am not suggesting for a second that there is any impropriety or anything like that. I am just making the point that the investigators and the authorities are sometimes under implied pressure not to officially declare a suicide in circumstances where it is likely the death was probably self-inflicted and may well have been deliberate but there remained an element of doubt, so an open finding is given.

Whether the figure is 2,000 or 3,000 is probably not overly important in the context of our discussion here today, but it does inform our debate and the fact that we need to take more action as a nation. Even if we take that official figure of around 2,000 it is an alarming figure. It means that during the last four days of parliamentary sittings probably 25 Australians will have ended their lives deliberately.

In the context of the report, Before it's too late: report on early intervention programs aimed at preventing youth suicide, the rate of youth suicide, which is particularly focused on, is one of great concern to all of us in this place, particularly for those members who represent rural electorates, where the rates of suicide are much higher. Referring to the report, its finding was that for young people aged 15 to 24 suicide is the number one cause of death. Young males in particular in regional areas are one of the highest risk categories for premature death from suicide. Despite an increase in funding over the past decade it still receives less mainstream public policy attention than issues like road safety and even sun protection.

Among the key recommendations in both the reports I have referred to is the view that we need to undertake a national suicide prevention and awareness campaign over five years with adequate and sustained resources. I believe that is a critical step. Such a campaign should target the at-risk groups—other members have talked about the risk factors, which are reasonably well understood—but should also apply at a more universal level to help build resilience, to help an entire community understand what the risk factors may be and, perhaps, to drive the national conversation about this topic, which has been taboo for too long.

I am pleased to say that in Victoria, in a regional sense, that conversation has started in recent weeks, with the ABC regional Statewide Drive radio program playing a significant role. I would like to congratulate the program, its host, Kathy Bedford, and the producers and staff involved. They have tackled this in what I believe is a very sensitive manner. I am sure that it is confronting for people, but I think we need to do it, and the media is an important tool at our disposal for raising awareness and assisting our community. I noted in the report and in previous reports we had talks about developing the use of social media so that we are interacting with young people in a medium that suits them.

I would also like to congratulate the government while I have the opportunity on the $18.2 million provided last week for Lifeline to allow toll-free calls from mobile phones. Increasingly young people rely on their mobile phones, and you do not want anyone not being able to seek help simply because they are out of credit on their phone. So I think that is a very important initiative.

I also want to refer, while I have the opportunity, to the comment piece by the 2010 Australian of the Year, Patrick McGorry, who wrote about the type of conversation that I think we need to have. Regarding the taboo that surrounds suicide, in his comment piece he said:

This culture of secrecy not only increases the risk of suicide, it also hampers the ability of the bereaved families and friends to recover from their loss.

Unlike the road toll, which has reduced by one third to 1,600 deaths a year and continues to decline, suicide remains a taboo subject and is sidelined in social policy.

…   …   …

As a society we remain reluctant to talk about suicide for fear it will inspire "copy cat" behaviour. We have warned off journalists and editors who believe that the issue cannot be routinely covered.

As a result the media fails to bear witness to the corrosive effects of these daily deaths on the family and friends of those who take their lives.

And he goes on to say:

There is no evidence to suggest that sensitive and accurate reporting of suicide inspires others to follow. The exception is the celebrity suicide which the media typically does cover.

As with the road toll, the media should keep and frequently report a tally of the lives lost to suicide through a national campaign backed and funded by the federal government.

…   …   …

There are real solutions available to us to significantly reduce the numbers of Australians who needlessly die by suicide. But to solve this problem, we must first talk about it.

As members of this place, I believe, as the previous speaker indicated, that we do have a very important role to play in helping to deal with this issue. Other members, I am sure, like me, visit a lot of schools. We get to talk to a lot of young people. And we can help to pass on the critical messages which one day may help save a life.

I often think of youth suicide in particular as a permanent solution to what may have been a temporary problem, and I noted the previous speaker indicating that young people can be impetuous; they can take action without fully understanding the consequences. But, with support and treatment and early intervention, I am sure that we can help to save lives.

I am reminded again of an old saying about it taking a village to raise a child. We are all stakeholders in this issue and there is a lot of collective wisdom in this place. As much as we may belittle each other from time to time on different areas of policy, there is collective wisdom in this place, and we have the capacity in this place to do better on this issue. If we see a young person in our community who is struggling as a result of family breakdown, or abusing drugs and alcohol, or clearly suffering from some mental health issues, we need to be prepared to offer some level of support and be able to intervene. We need to have the tools at our disposal to be able to be the person who takes action and gets them the sort of help they need.

The report we are debating today does make that point. The report talks about the training of these so-called gatekeepers and the need for greater collaboration between all levels of government and service providers. One area that really does concern me is that we cannot afford to have these turf wars. We cannot have this silo mentality where one organisation is offering one level of assistance and another is offering something else and they become quite territorial. It makes it very hard for people, particularly young people who are not used to dealing with agencies and authorities and who may be disoriented anyway or unsure of what they need to do next; they do not need to be tied up in some sort of confusing maze of bureaucracy about which agency does what and who they need to go to see to seek help.

So I think there is a need for better collaboration. But, naturally, as a member from a regional area, I also believe there is a massive need for more investment in services in regional areas themselves, where it is often very difficult for people with mental health issues to receive support in their own communities. In my own electorate, almost invariably you have to travel if you need critical mental health assistance. I think we need to get the most out of every service that we already have and avoid duplication and confusion on the ground. On that gatekeeper training, I think that is a very important point made in the report. It is critical for people who work with younger members of our community that they have the skills to monitor, to detect any early warning signs, and then to help facilitate any treatment that may be available in that local community.

But I think the key point in all this is to remember that we can do it. We can save lives if we pass on the skills to our families and friends, and to teachers, youth workers, sports coaches, health professionals and law enforcement officers. Anyone who has regular contact with young people is in a position where they may be able to offer assistance with the right training in the future. As someone who is directly involved in surf lifesaving, I get to meet hundreds of young people in my community every year. They are almost without exception positive young achievers. But even among them you find issues of self-esteem, occasionally even bullying, even in a protected environment like a surf lifesaving club, where some kids do not feel quite up to it. You need to be able to help them to build their resilience and to take on challenges in a controlled manner. I think that is very important for them in helping them to build their self-esteem.

There are things we can do in our daily lives as active members of our community, beyond registered programs that may carry the banner of a suicide prevention program. I am a strong believer in the benefits of physical exercise, particularly in getting young people involved in team sports and community activities where they are part of something which is bigger than themselves and where they can find a role for themselves in the community. They will see that there is hope for them—they will find there is reason in their life and that they are part of something much bigger than they may have realised. On that point, there are many local solutions which we can help to drive within the broader national framework which the two reports talk about.

This is a very complex issue. Time for this discussion today is limited, but I encourage all members who are interested in the topic to continue to be involved. That we are having this conversation in this place is a major step forward; it is a very important step in the right direction. I know it is idealistic to believe that we can save every life, but I sincerely believe we can and must do better. I urge all members to work in a bipartisan manner to help prevent suicide in our community in future. Finally, I thank all the people in our community, the professional workers and the volunteers, who are already making a difference in this area. As a nation, we are indebted to you for the work you do for other people.