Norfolk Island Regional Council

Mental health Literacy - Understanding Suicide

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Of all the issues in mental health, suicide is the one we least want to talk about. Whether you’re struggling alone with suicidal thoughts, coping with someone at risk, or whether you’re trying to piece together your life after losing someone to suicide, the overwhelming sense of helplessness when the mind goes awry is not something that many people feel willing to discuss, and even fewer are confident discussing it constructively.

Having recently lost a very dear and highly respected colleague who took his own life following a tragic set of circumstances, this week’s topic is particularly personal. I’m not alone when I struggle to find answers to why this happened, and what any of us who cared so much could have done to prevent it. My colleague had a huge community of people around him who were inspired by his wisdom and expertise, yet he must have felt completely alone in those final moments. So as a legacy of sorts, I want us, in our community, to become more open about discussing all aspects of mental health, particularly suicide. Knowing how to recognise the risk factors and working together to strengthen the protective factors so none of our own need take that same path involves every one of us, and the starting point is bringing this issue out of the closet.

In 2016, an average of 7.85 people died by suicide in Australia each day - that’s 1.81% of all deaths . For men, the highest age-specific suicide rate was in the 85+ age group (34.0 per 100,000). For women, the highest age-specific suicide rate was in the 50-54 age group with 10.4 per 100,000. Over the past 10 years, the number of suicide deaths was approximately 3 times higher in males than females - 75.1% of people who died by suicide were male. Globally, suicide rates have increased 60% in the past 45 years, and few countries in the world have succeeded in dramatically lowering the death rates by suicide.

Numbers aside, the human side of suicide is very complex. There’s no doubt that people choose to take their own lives for many different reasons, and even at the individual level, there’s rarely only one trigger for suicide. Mental health problems such as depression remain the most common risk factor. When this is mixed with other problems such as drug or alcohol abuse (often to “self-medicate”), traumatic life events, financial problems, loss of loved ones to suicide or sudden death, feeling alone and unsupported or disconnected, and having made previous attempts, people’s coping capacity often runs dry. Once this happens, hopelessness can set in and with it a downward spiral where there seems to be no possible future, until the tipping point is reached. This might be actually quite a small event, but it trips the switch that makes life seem not worth living.

The other side of the complex factors related to suicide is the personal experience of thoughts and emotions that can spiral out of control when too many bad things happen. It’s common when faced with difficulties to have negative thoughts, but mostly when this happens we shake ourselves up and find some light at the end of the tunnel. However, if this doesn’t happen, it can be scary, we may isolate ourselves even more and feel flooded with shame or guilt, or even feel foolish and weak. Irrational thoughts can take root, and the more we focus on these (rather than better alternatives), the more we develop a faulty thinking habit that seems to take over. Telling someone about these troubling thoughts often doesn’t go down well, which then just makes us feel even more isolated and hopeless.

Finland is one country that has tackled this issue with resounding success. Their   male suicide rate has declined every year for the past 27 years. So what’s their secret? Mainly, it’s been long-term comprehensive national programs tackling stigma and raising public awareness, as well as training health workers, school staff, police and other gatekeepers in good crisis responding. This involves making sure everyone has basic skills for recognising risk factors and knowing how to respond calmly and constructively whilst making it as easy as possible to get help when needed.

Like basic first aid, knowing the warning signs, being confident enough to start the conversation with someone we may be concerned about, recognising if our thinking patterns are going off track and feeling safe enough to ask for help, and creating a community where every one of us is valued and supported are simple building blocks for tackling this problem. If you’d like to find out more and start weaving together a whole-community response to building our resilience against these types of tragedies, come along to the next free community forum.

FREE INFORMATION SESSION – Wednesday 7 March 6.00 – 7.30 PM: Understanding Suicide – Risk and Prevention. Bookings essential please.

Dr Kate Lemerle, Psychologist
Chrysalis Counselling & Coaching, Norfolk Island
TEL: 52112 or email

Please 'contact us' for more information.

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