Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows we must act now to save lives

Nieves Murray, Chief Executive Officer at Suicide Prevention Australia

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has revealed 3,144 Australians died by suicide in 2021, compared to 3,139 in 2020. Sadly, eight to nine people die by suicide every day.

According to the findings, there were 2,358 male suicides (18.2 deaths per 100,000) and 786 female suicide deaths (6.1 per 100,000). Suicide was the 15th leading cause of death overall in 2021. Suicide was the most common cause of death for young people aged 15-24 years. In 2021, 219 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people died by suicide.

What were the key insights of the survey?

  • The median age of death by suicide was 44.8 years.
  • The suicide rate for males decreased by 2.3% & the suicide rate for females increased by 5%. Consistent with previous years, males are 3x more likely to die by suicide than females.
  • The median age of death by suicide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was 30.2 years, more than a decade younger than the median age of death by suicide for the general population of 44.8 years. The gap is widening compared to last year (31.3 vs 43.5).

What are the risk factors according to the data?

  • Almost 90% of people who died by suicide had at least one risk factor reported.
  • Psychosocial risk factors were the most commonly reported risk factor and were present in almost two-thirds of deaths of people who died by suicide.
  • Mental and behavioural disorders were present in almost 63 percent of deaths of people who died by suicide.
  • People who died by suicide had an average of three to four risk factors mentioned.

How important is the survey data in suicide prevention?

Suicide Prevention Australia CEO, Nieves Murray said, “Suicide rates remained stubbornly high in 2021. One death by suicide is one too many and more needs to be done to turn the trend towards zero. Data is incredibly important in suicide prevention. It helps inform how we approach suicide prevention and influences service and program delivery.

“Access to causes of death data is part of the picture, but we also need more timely data on suicide attempts to better understand and respond to distress in our communities. It’s also essential to remember those touched by suicide and how this data may impact them today.”

“The ABS Causes of Death data is 10-22 months old and cannot be our only indicator in suicide prevention. We’re seeing worrying indications from the Aussie Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) Suicide & Self-harm Monitoring System. In NSW and Victoria, the total number of people who died by suicide in July 2022 was higher than at the same time in the last 3yrs.”

“Only NSW and Victoria publicly report recent deaths by suicide and when these figures are combined the two states represent 57% of the national population. Our annual State of the Nation report released last month revealed 70% of Australians have experienced elevated distress beyond their normal levels compared with this time last year,” Murray added.

“Our sector is working harder than ever before with 88% of providers reporting an increase in demand over the past 12 months. We are at a critical juncture for suicide prevention. Research shows it’s two-to-three years after a natural or economic disaster that suicide rates can increase. We saw this with increases to suicide rates during the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, and we’ve seen it after bushfires, Cyclone Yasi and the Christchurch earthquake.”

“Now, we’re emerging from a global pandemic, the rising cost of living and mortgages are set to increase financial, housing and relationship stress, we’re facing geo-political tensions and compounding environmental disasters. It’s critical the Australian Government urgently focuses on suicide prevention to keep suicide rates from rising during this challenging time. It’s time to act. We need to implement smart policy reform now. We can’t be complacent, Murray said.

“We are calling on the Australian Government to urgently consider a National Suicide Prevention Act as a matter of priority. Since the introduction of the 2006 Basic Act for Suicide Prevention in Japan, suicide deaths have fallen by about 40 percent in the past 15 years and the number of suicides nationwide hit a 40-year low in 2019, Murray added.

“An Act would ensure that every government department, whether it’s housing, education, social security or health, must look at their policies & priorities through a suicide prevention lens. This is a critical step in protecting our community at a time when it’s needed most.”

“The data shows the complexity of suicide, & that there are many varied risk factors whether it’s relationship breakdown, house insecurity, financial insecurity or drug & alcohol use.”

“This is exactly why we need an Act, so that the accountability is spread across the whole of government. It’s important to note that each number presented in this data represents a life lost which was valued and will be missed. The impact of suicide can be felt across families, schools, workplace, sporting clubs and community groups. If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out for help,” Nieves Murray said in conclusion.

What were the executives’ thoughts on the findings?

Nic Brown CEO of batyr, said, “We know that the past couple of years have been hard on young people but these recent statistics further show the extent of this impact. There is so much more for us all to do to ensure young people aren’t suffering in silence.

There is an important role the Government needs to play in all of this but equally there is an important role we can all play. We need to go upstream and help young people see hope for their future, develop tools to navigate tough times, reduce stigma around talking about mental health & accessing support & need to be communities that support each other,” Nic said.

Ashley de Silva CEO of ReachOut, said, “The latest Causes of Death data from the ABS shows that suicide remains the leading cause of death among young people aged 15-24 yrs.

Sadly, 402 young people died by suicide in 2021. Each of these deaths represents a young person lost and a significant impact on those around them and their communities. It is clear that we need new investments from Gov’t in early intervention & prevention services to reduce suicide rates & to ensure that people can easily access the support they need,” Silva added.

Shayne Connell CEO of LivingWorks Australia, said, “The data release is important for the suicide prevention sector to know where we prioritise our services, we must remember that behind every number is a real person whose family feel the ongoing impacts of their loss.”

“This data is always a sobering reminder that our work is not done, & much more needs to be invested in the suicide prevention & early intervention space to ensure people with thoughts of suicide have the right supports around them to keep safe, access help & find hope,” he said.