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Thursday, 30 October 1997
Page: 10421

Ms GAMBARO(12.47 p.m.) —I rise today to also address the topic which has become so significant. There are very few communities that have not come to grips with the devastation of youth suicide. The incidence of suicide has now reached most unacceptable levels, particularly in regional areas and particularly with respect to males.

However, the increase in the rate of suicide in cities should not be minimised. According to a recent publication from the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention, there are upwards of 2,500 deaths recorded as suicide each year. Queensland and Tasmania have the highest incidences of suicides. A report recently released by the Queensland government indeed confirms this very sad fact.

However, even more disturbing is that for every successful suicide there are up to 300 female and 50 male unsuccessful attempts. In my own electorate of Petrie, as indeed in Australia, there are families who have known the pain and suffering of having someone close to them commit suicide. Recently, I hosted a breakfast in Margate, which Professor Baume and the member for Fisher (Mr Slipper) convened. Over 100 people attended this breakfast. It was particularly sad at the end of the breakfast when I was speaking to a number of people who had been touched by this particular problem. A mother in tears approached me. She was absolutely devastated by the death of her son 12 months previously. She was still in a period of denial and did not understand why he had taken his life. But she felt reassured by coming along to the breakfast and she thanked me enormously for organising the breakfast. It gave her great comfort and reassurance that there was nothing that she could have done and no way that she could have predicted that he would take his life. I was able to then put her in touch with a support group of parents who are able to meet on a regular basis and discuss the issues of youth suicide.

The most tragic thing is that the people who are left behind are the ones that suffer for many years afterwards not knowing if there was something that they somehow could have done to prevent their young ones taking their lives. It is the not knowing that haunts them for the rest of their lives. It is important to emphasise that this touches everyone from family to friends. Quite often, the friends that are left in their wake and their family are the ones that really do need the help the most.

But it is an issue that does affect the lives of families, not only in the Redcliffe areas I have mentioned, in Deception Bay, but throughout Australia. We cannot ignore it as a community and we cannot really take it very lightly. We have a responsibility as a community not to trivialise this or ignore it, because it has very great social ramifications.

It is an issue that we see quite a lot. We see it in the media, in programs like 60 Minutes, and in publications. We even have the misfortune now to see it on the Internet. On one occasion, I heard Professor Baume speak of the role of the Internet and what young people use it for these days. They use it as a forum to communicate with each other on suitable and appropriate measures of suicide and they actually give each other tips on the most effective ways to commit suicide. It is disturbing to see that. There are thousands of hit sites on the Internet that deal with this. It is quite a blight on our society that the Internet is being used by young people to communicate these things.

As with any tragic death, the ramifications of suicide are very widespread but, unlike other tragic deaths, suicide brings with it great sadness, disbelief and guilt. As I mentioned, family and friends are the ones who find it very hard to understand. Like ripples in a pond, these deaths, by their very nature, cannot fail to affect everyone in the community. One thing I have noticed is that, if there are cases of suicide in families, it tends to be an intergenerational thing. There are certainly issues that never get resolved in the first place. It gets buried away under the carpet or in the cupboard. People do not speak about it, and intergenerational suicide is a very common thing.

We should really look at it very closely. We should be tireless in our efforts to find solutions because there is such despair and hopelessness among our young people. The member for Newcastle (Mr Allan Morris) highlighted some terrible cases that he has come across. He touched me deeply when he spoke about the young women who had been to see him and the terrible cases of suicide. But young people can overcome some of these things. He spoke of some very positive instances where young women were prostitutes and were contemplating suicide but they were able to rebuild their lives and attend university and look forward to the future. He was right that we need to emphasise the youth aspects of it—the trauma and youth development—and I think that is very important to acknowledge.

I have spoken on this topic on many occasions and today I would like to acknowledge the efforts of the House, particularly the previous chairman of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs in producing the report Aspects of youth suicide. The report followed a very successful seminar that was held here earlier this year. I was not a member of the committee but I did gain quite a lot from attending on that particular day. The speakers were top rate and, as I mentioned, I have since had contact with one of the speakers, Associate Professor Pierre Baume. He has made a number of contributions in this area. It is an area that he has studied for a number of years. His extensive research has tended to emphasise the sociological factors that contribute to youth suicide. He believes that these can be divided into categories: the global aspects and the personal aspects. He mentioned a number of things, and a number of speakers have highlighted them—for instance, the high divorce rate. One cannot underestimate the effect of divorce. It is a devastating thing. What is more devastating, when people do split up, is that children sometimes feel that they are the direct cause of it. It is never talked through with young children, and it is not explained that they are not really the central issue in a divorce.

Other areas were high youth and high female unemployment. Alcohol consumption, as the member for Leichhardt (Mr Entsch) mentioned, is clearly a big problem. A number of speakers have raised the issue of unwanted pregnancies and the devastation this can have on people's lives not just in the immediate present but also well into the future. There is a trend these days not to attend church and not to be community or religion focused. One cannot underestimate the importance of those factors—when people have no-one to talk to—and having community support.

There are some other facts that I would like to highlight, that come up frequently. The member for Leichhardt mentioned the rate of Aboriginal deaths by suicide. It is an area of grave concern. It is four times the rate of non-Aboriginals in Queensland. As I mentioned, for every suicide, there are a number of suicides that are attempted—and these are 100 times greater.

There is also the fact that there is a larger number of men who commit suicide than females. Blood alcohol levels and alcohol addictions clearly have a strong correlation with suicidal behaviour, particularly when you talk about binge drinking, which tends to occur mainly in summer. That was something that was highlighted at the recent breakfast that I hosted. These particular bouts of binge drinking occur in summer, and the rates of suicide are higher in summer.

Professor Baume mentioned that we needed to put more preventive measures in place. But then he highlighted that we need to be particularly concerned—and he quoted studies that go back 30 or so years—because sometimes if you do put in too many prevention measures, or not the right prevention measures, suicide rates actually go up in schools where they have had prevention measures. He emphasised that there was a greater need to put these measures in place when people reach young adulthood, rather than at schools. That was quite an interesting revelation. I was quite amazed when he made that particular revelation.

The main problems are definitely in the relationship area. I feel that young men do not mature as quickly as young women. Most of the problems are on a very personal level and they compound the situation. Things like the loss or death of a family friend, as I have mentioned, and break-up of relationships clearly come into the equation, particularly with young males when they are not able to deal with the sense of rejection and loss. We need to spend a lot more money on relationship counselling and dealing with those sorts of issues as well because they are clearly a problem when people are not able to deal with the break-up of a relationship or with grief issues.

The importance of these factors is seen in the results of a youth forum in my area, in Redcliffe. Those forums will be continuing. Whilst forums like these are very important to identify problems and suggest solutions, it is important that all levels in the community combine and cooperate to follow through in working out strategies and implementing programs to help realise these solutions.

The federal government has taken some steps, and they are to be commended, particularly in respect to the youth suicide issue. Upwards of $31 million is being spent on the national youth suicide prevention strategy, and they are very real and positive steps. Also, there is a provision of $6 million to states and territories to improve access in rural and remote areas to counselling; $6 million is being committed to Lifeline and Kids Helpline; and $3 million is being provided for programs for parents.

And let's not underestimate the benefit of parents. We all take an individual responsibility when we have children to ensure that they are brought up in the correct manner as far as their physical needs are concerned and their schooling. But psychological nurturing and self-esteem are just as important. I know that negativity can be one of the greatest downfalls of any young person. We do need to nurture and look after our young people.

All the research that I have seen on overseas countries and the incidence of suicide—and, clearly, Australia and New Zealand seem to have the highest rates in the industrialised world—point to the factor of cultural and family influence. It is no coincidence when you see European countries with lower levels of youth suicide. One has to detect from that: is the family environment such that it does not encourage suicide? What is being done culturally in these countries that prevents suicide? Is it a stronger family situation? Is it the role of the extended family? We cannot underestimate how important family influences and upbringing are in this particular issue.

The previous Minister for Family Services (Mrs Moylan) best summed it up in June this year, when she launched the national youth suicide program, when she said:

When so many of our young people are dying by their own hand through despair, desperation, frustration, or loneliness, it is a problem that demands national attention and national action.

The recommendations of the committee's report are that developments in the effective service delivery of these programs and strategies will be based on positive and up-to-date information.

The integration of suicide research is needed to ensure that grants are used effectively. There has to be some sort of consistency and accuracy in data collection in Australia. It is very disturbing when you see that there is no national database for suicide, and that the statistics are very sketchily collected and are very ad hoc. We really need to look at focusing on that. If we know the extent of the problem that we are dealing with, we can deal with it much more effectively. I emphasise the need for greater research and figures in this area.

The federal government has shown that it is prepared to support and assist those who are at risk and are classified as prime candidates for youth suicide. The fact that the committee advocates the constant review of Australia's suicide strategy emphasises the fact that the strategies and funding policies need to be continually monitored, and updated if necessary.

I think that it is important that the information be provided, that it is designed to assist families and those at risk, and that it needs to be as readily and widely available as possible. Doctors, teachers, counsellors, representatives at all levels of government, and particularly young people, should have access not only to this relevant information but also to the contact details. This is particularly important for families in crisis.

The solution to youth suicide is very complex and very sensitive and this government has made, and will make, a significant effort to listen to and address the needs of that part of our community which right at this very minute is crying out in loneliness and desperation. I think that the most important step, the next step—prevention—is going to be very much harder, and we really do need to emphasise it.

Debate (on motion by Mr Anthony) adjourned.

Main Committee adjourned at 1.01 p.m.