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Monday, 16 February 2004
Page: 24798


Mr BARTLETT (4:11 PM) —I suspect that everyone here has had dealings with constituents, and most of us with someone in our circle of friends or extended family, whose lives have been affected either directly or indirectly by the tragedy of youth suicide. Most would be acquainted with the unimaginable grief, confusion and self-examination experienced by loved ones. The death of a young person is always devastating, but when it is self-inflicted it is even more tragic. When a young person comes to the point that they feel life is not worth living, when the normal optimism, anticipation and aspiration of youth are so completely overwhelmed by depression, anxiety or despair that death is considered the only alternative, it is particularly inexplicable.

The facts are fairly clear. In Australia, as in most other Western countries, suicide is the second most common cause of death for people aged between 12 and 24. A recent international study of 32 countries ranks Australia 13th in the world for male suicides and 18th for female suicides—comparable to Canada and the US, but much lower than New Zealand. In 2002, there were 2,320 deaths from suicide in Australia, and 317 of these were people between 15 and 24 years of age, with males outnumbering females by four to one. Tragically, in Australia from the sixties through to the mid-1990s the rate of youth suicide grew rapidly. In fact, it more than doubled during that time. Fortunately, the last few years have seen an encouraging reversal of that trend, with a decline in youth suicide rates since 1997 to a point where they are now the lowest since 1990. But there is still a very long way to go.

Clearly there is no single reason or certain cause for youth suicide, or indeed for suicide generally, but there are many risk factors that have been identified and generally agreed upon, not just within Australia but in international studies as well. These include: childhood and family discord and adversity; psychopathology; depression; mental health factors; social and educational disadvantage; parental separation and divorce; physical and/or sexual abuse in childhood; genetic and personality factors such as low self-esteem, anxiety, anger and social inadequacy; substance abuse; stressful or traumatic life events; suicide contagion and unhelpful publicity. There is a whole range of things, and in many cases I dare say suicide is due to a complex interaction of a number of those factors. The important question is: what can be done? It is encouraging to see that many groups within our community are doing their best and are working to reduce youth suicide rates, and they deserve all the assistance and commendation that can be given.

This government are committed to supporting suicide prevention initiatives. In the past few years we have committed some $10 million a year to funding national and community initiatives to try and address some of the causes of youth suicide. Since 1997 the government have committed $11 million to Lifeline, Kids Help Line and Reach Out! amongst others. Lifeline, for example, amazingly gets some 1,000 calls a day from people across the country who are desperate and need someone to talk to. I guess we will never know how many lives have been saved by the tremendous work of volunteers in organisations such as Lifeline and Kids Help Line. Those people do a tremendous job.

But it is important to realise that no government program and no community group can ultimately totally prevent youth suicide. The focus needs to be on investing in the mental health and wellbeing of our young people in a consistent and long-term way—in recognising that good mental health is not automatic; that we need to address the risk factors and build the confidence, self-esteem and purpose of our young people; and that we need to ensure the appropriate support mechanisms for those who are vulnerable. There is much at stake, so much that we cannot afford not to do everything we can to help.