Youth Suicide

Maria speaks on the Human Tragedy effecting young people

Youth suicide is a human tragedy affecting thousands of Australian families and communities every year. I know this because suicide has touched my life on three occasions—once as a university undergraduate and twice in the last year.

On the first occasion, my friend was suffering emotional disorders that made her death easier to comprehend, although not easier to accept as we agonised over why someone so young and intelligent would choose to end her life at 18 by jumping off one of the university buildings. The other two, more recent, deaths were of older males, one I had known since I was 12 years of age and the other in recent years. Both men chose violent deaths, one by shotgun and the other by hanging, leaving their families and their communities stunned, traumatised and struggling with the hurt and, sadly, with the stigma that society stills attaches to suicide.

Australia currently has the second highest rate of youth suicide amongst OECD nations, and suicide and self-harm are currently the second leading cause of death amongst young Australians between 12 and 24 years of age. They represent 19.2 per cent of deaths in this age group, and 56 per cent of young people rate depression and suicide as the most important issue in their lives. These figures increase in rural areas and suburban outskirts, such as in my own electorate in Melbourne's north-west.

This situation is worsening every year, as the rate of suicide amongst young Australians has been increasing steadily over the last three decades, with a 300 per cent increase amongst adolescent males. Most distressing, however—it is why it is important that we discuss this issue here today—is the fact that most of these deaths are preventable. Only one-quarter of juvenile suicide victims are said to be suffering from a diagnosed mental illness, which suggests that the remaining three-quarters are simply normal young people with inadequate coping skills and support structures.

Thankfully, there is some hope for youth at risk. A host of government and non-government associations and programs, such as CIRYAR in Rockhampton and Here for Life in Victoria, have achieved great success combating self-harming behaviour and depression. Youth suicide rates in communities where such mentoring programs and counselling services are available have all decreased significantly.

A recent survey by the Centre for Adolescent Health indicated that five per cent of young people engage in self-harming behaviour as a coping mechanism and that up to 49 per cent of teenagers have considered taking their own lives. Reasons why young people are at risk of self-harm range from breakdowns in family relationships to an inability to find relevance in and to connect with the education system, inadequate and insufficient life choices, mental illness and the alarming increase of alcohol and drug abuse amongst young people.

As a parent and as a politician I feel it is my responsibility to help bring attention to this situation—and so does the member for Capricornia, and I commend her on her efforts today. More needs be done to provide young people with the support and skills to cope in difficult situations. Education programs in schools are one such way of addressing the issue. Taught in the context of health and wellbeing classes, such programs would bring the issue out of the shadows, open up avenues of communication, highlight the dangers of self-harm and provide coping skills.

Despite critics of such education programs who claim that these programs might give kids ideas, statistics clearly show otherwise. Communities where education awareness programs have been established have all seen a decrease in self-harming behaviour and suicide attempts amongst 15- to 24-year-olds. Surely this is powerful evidence to encourage these education programs that aim to better equip teachers and peers with the skills to recognise the telltale signs displayed by 95 per cent of those considering suicide and the skills needed to intervene and save their lives.

It is worth noting that communities with strong family ties and community relations have significantly lower rates of suicide than other community groups. For example, when we compare the rate of adolescent male suicide in Australia of 23.1 per 100,000 to that of some southern European countries, we can see how the effect of the strong extended family, friends, neighbourhood and community is integral to successfully addressing youth suicide.

When I last spoke in the House about suicide I said that a new approach encompassing all government portfolios was needed to address this national issue, as all portfolios impact upon the aspirations and opportunities of young Australians. I am encouraged by the fact that the Leader of the Opposition has recognised that there is a link between depression and feelings of alienation and between the breakdown of relationships and the breakdown of community. Therefore, his decision to create a community relations portfolio and appoint the member for Melbourne to take up the challenge in this critical area is, I believe, one of the most significant initiatives taken by a politician to address a pressing social and human crisis. I certainly look forward—as I am sure everyone else in this House looks forward—to the development of the national mentoring program.