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Tuesday, 3 December 2002
Page: 7083

Senator MASON (11:50 PM) —I rise tonight to speak about a sad topic but one, nevertheless, of great importance to the people of Queensland and indeed to all Australians: the continuing epidemic of suicide and, in particular, its impact on older men in our community. The suicide rate among younger people has been falling for the past few years. Since 1997 there has been a 35 per cent decrease in suicides in the 15 to 24 age group and the rate is now at its lowest in a decade. That is good and welcome news.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for older age groups. Men of all ages are far more likely than women to take their own lives, particularly those living in rural communities. While the gap between male and female suicide rates narrows as people get older, men over the age of 55 are still at least three times as likely to take their own lives as are women of the same age. This tragic state of affairs has recently been brought to my attention by Mr Jack Backer of the Queensland Division of the Association of Independent Retirees. Mr Backer feels very passionately about this issue and is campaigning to educate the community about this epidemic that is costing the lives of so many older Australians.

Suicide is a tragedy in so many different ways. On a personal level it represents the final, terrible step for those who feel that they have lost their struggle with life's problems. It deeply affects the families and friends of those who have taken their own lives. It imposes a great cost on society, which loses so many of its most sensitive and vulnerable members, both young and old. The high suicide rate is also an indictment on our society for its inability to help those who desperately need that help, to offer hope for those who feel helpless, and to rescue those who feel lost.

Suicide is a complex issue. Many different factors contribute to a person's decision to end his or her life. Different factors, too, affect different age groups. Younger people are more likely to commit suicide because of an inability to fit in with peers or because of family problems. Many of us have been hurt, as I have been hurt, by the suicide of young friends whose cries for help we did not hear or did not understand. For older Australians, health problems, particularly of a chronic or terminal nature, are more likely to cause them to contemplate ending their lives. The death of a spouse of many years and the loneliness and isolation that follow also often lead to depression and then to suicide.

It is encouraging to note that suicide and suicide prevention are now receiving much more attention both from the government and from within our community. Many useful initiatives are now in place to address suicide as well as, more broadly, the epidemics of mental illness and depression that contribute so much to suicide. Under the National Suicide Prevention Strategy $48 million has already been committed over five years, between 1999 and 2004. The government has recently made a commitment to extend the strategy until 2006. Then there are specific initiatives such as beyondblue, the national depression initiative, which provides education and information regarding disability associated with depression and related illness. Ultimately, beyondblue aims to reduce the impact of common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, on the Australian community.

But, as with so many other aspects of life, we have to recognise that there is only so much that the government and its agencies can do. In the end it is up to each and every one of us to help and to try to make a difference. Mr Backer writes in his pamphlet about suicide:

Prevention is the only cure!

He goes on to say:

Best of all we can look at our neighbours and may discover the lonely old man, who lost his wife and seems to be withdrawn from social contact. His garden is very likely to be in a mess. Invite him for a cup of tea or coffee. Mow his lawn for him or do some shopping with him and make him feel he is not alone in the world.

That is good advice that we should all heed. It is up to us to notice and not to turn away; it is up to us to notice and to care. Every suicide is one too many. Every one of us can be a lifesaver.