Australia urged to follow UK-lead and appoint a Suicide Prevention Minister

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By JULIETTE CAPOMOLLA 

This article is part of MOJO News campaign #HearMeOut to have a Federal Minister for Suicide Prevention appointed *

The Australian Government should follow the United Kingdom’s lead and appoint a suicide prevention minister to reduce the country’s climbing suicide rates, experts have urged.

According to UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, the UK Government’s leading position on suicide is “every suicide is a preventable death”. 

The UK’s Office for National Statistics stated that a total of 5821 suicides were registered in the UK in 2017, equating to 10.1 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people. 

In late 2018, then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May responded by appointing the world’s first Suicide Prevention Minister, Jackie Doyle-Price. Her title is the Secretary of State for Mental Health, Inequalities and Suicide Prevention.

Jackie Doyle-Price, the UK’s first Suicide Prevention Minister, was appointed by then-Prime Minister Theresa May in 2018

In July 2019, the portfolio was bolstered when Nadine Dorries was appointed UK Secretary of State for Mental Health, Suicide Prevention and Patient Safety.

According to a statement from the UK Government, the roles create a ministerial task force to ensure “every local area has an effective suicide prevention plan in place, and look at how the latest technology can be used to identify those most at risk”.

UK mental health charity SANE spokesman Richard Colwill said, “it is a little early to tell” what impact the task force has had on UK suicide rates.

“It may prove helpful to have a dedicated [suicide] minister who is able to work across government departments to ensure consistent application of suicide prevention measures,” Mr Colwill said.

Mr Colwill said a long-term strategy was crucial.

“It should focus on the groups most at risk – in the UK for example, one of those cohorts is middle-aged men…and on interventions, for example, reducing access to the means of suicide, such as removing ligature points from mental health hospital units or installing barriers on bridges.”

In comparison to the UK, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that, in 2017, there were 3128 people who died from suicide, equating to 12.6 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people.

Western Australia’s 2018 Australian of the Year, Dr Tracey Westerman, was recognised for her work with Indigenous communities to reduce the burden of mental illness.

Dr Tracey Westerman, Western Australia’s Australian of the Year in 2018. PHOTO: Supplied

Dr Westerman said Australia’s current system was not working and needed to be changed, and one option was appointing a Federal Minister for Suicide Prevention.

“Unless we have a consistent focus on the determination of evidence-based practice in this complex area, we will continue to have outcomes which do not address the significant gaps in best practice,” Dr Westerman said.

“Without expertise, whether we have a commissioner or a minister, the outcome will continue to remain as it has been. That we are failing to ensure that programs are delivering measured outcomes; that they are capable of addressing suicide risk prevention and that evidence is being gathered to demonstrate clear evidence of impacts,” she said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded to Australia’s increasing suicide rate by appointing National Suicide Prevention Adviser, Christine Morgan, in early July 2019. 

This appointment was in conjunction with Mr Morrison’s announcement of record funds for mental health and a zero-suicide goal. 

But a suicide prevention advisor’s powers are far less than that of a cabinet minister. The role is to provide advice to the Prime Minister and cabinet, who then decide what to do with that information.

That leaves the appointment open to being criticised as tokenistic.

Christine Morgan, National Suicide Prevention Advisor to the federal government.

In a statement released by the Department of Health, Ms Morgan said “over the past three months I have been visiting communities across Australia and have heard about what is working and what our communities believe needs to change”.

“It’s critical governments, services and the broader community come together to ensure an inclusive and proactive response to suicide,” Ms Morgan said.

Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology at Monash University, Bruce Tonge, said more must be done in this area but the issue was much broader than just the act of suicide. 

“I am more in favour of a Senior Minister of Mental Health and National Resilience as the tragedy of suicide is the sharp end of broader mental health and social problems and therefore its prevention requires a complex range of community wide responses,” Professor Tonge said. 

“No longer can details of a suicide be kept relatively contained and messages regarding where help is available for those distressed by the event promulgated through traditional media when dramatic misleading and detailed information is rapidly spread through social media contributing to copycat acts and community disruption,” he said.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt is currently responsible for suicide prevention in Australia. PHOTO: Supplied

The Minister for Health, Hon Greg Hunt, is the current federal minister responsible for suicide prevention, but he denied a request to be interviewed, providing a written statement to MOJO News instead.

“Suicide prevention continues to be a key priority for the Australian Government and a matter very close to my heart,” Mr Hunt wrote.

“We are continuing to build the evidence base for what works to prevent suicide through key initiatives such as the National Suicide Prevention Trial, the Suicide Prevention Research Fund and a dedicated funding round under the Million Minds Mission,” he wrote.

* Please sign MOJO News’ petition to have a Federal Minister for Suicide Prevention appointed here.
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