Australia has a $7.5 billion problem it's not doing enough to fix

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Last year in Australia 3,027 people died from suicide — average of 8.3 deaths each day.
Pete Shmigel, CEO of Lifeline Australia, says it’s a national problem with each death costing at least $2.5 million. Shmigel has penned an article about his son’s struggles with mental illness and attempted suicide, and how it led him to devote his career to suicide prevention in Australia.

“What was he thinking.”

“I’m so angry at him.”

“If only he’d said something to the rest of us.”

These are some of the responses to suicide or attempted suicide that I have personally heard. Not least of which because I would have said them myself during a three-year period in which my then-teenage son made three attempts to die by suicide.

Now, with Tim recovered and exceptionally well, and myself more aware and in the role of CEO of Australia’s largest suicide prevention service, I can reflect on what I got wrong and, frankly, what I fear our society is also getting wrong. Maybe, in reversing our thinking and getting it right, we can reverse record high levels of Australians dying by suicide, as the recently-released ABS figures showed us.

We can start by changing the views held by many that someone who dies by suicide or attempts suicide is responsible for the situation that he/she is in and the deadly choice made. In other words, there’s something inherently “wrong” with John or Jane: too many of us too often see them as “unwell”, or not having addressed their “illness” and, at worst, selfish and even spiteful. Even when we’re being generous, we tend to think to ourselves: it must be depression, or anxiety, or another higher-order mental illness.

As a result, the prevalent response is to “fix” them through a medical solution. Australians are the third largest consumers of anti-depressants in the world. Only Iceland and the United States take more anti-depressants per capita than we do. Yet, we fail to go further and ask why this is the case; we generally treat the symptoms rather than go to the causes.

It is generally the same with our approach to suicide where we are seemingly more concerned with treating the suicidal person for the “condition” they exhibit, and less focussed on what is happening for them, in their lives and community, that leads them to a point where they see more reasons for dying than for living.

The research-based theories on suicidal behaviour highlight the role of social isolation and loneliness, social exclusion and a sense of not belonging in suicide. Other factors like sudden financial/economic disadvantage, past trauma, and relationship breakdown cannot be underestimated. This was confirmed by a recent study by the Australian Institute of Suicide Reduction and Prevention, which explored the multitude of factors that lead middle aged men to take their own lives at such alarming numbers.

Beyond the need to change community perceptions, when our business models actually interconnect with suicide – be they financial services, transport or construction – is it enough to claim competing priorities or unaffordable costs? In this respect, suicide is a massive hit on national productivity with each death costing at least $2.5 million. Yet, the pharmaceutical industry is highly profitable and somewhat disconnected from the suicide policy debate.

I am not suggesting that these industries are being malicious or even practicing benign neglect. Rather, they’re probably subject to the broader thinking I’ve outlined – that it’s not seen as their responsibility to contribute to suicide prevention because that responsibility is perceived to be largely resting with the person who is suicidal.

In response to the recent suicide statistics, we have called for a National Summit to Stop Suicide. In the build up to the Summit, we will be talking to bereaved families to learn what they tried to do, how they desperately fought for the lives of their loved ones, and how they may have at times been frustrated in their attempts by a system that doesn’t really understand suicide. But we will go further.

From inviting the pharmaceutical and medical industries to the table to engaging with the social media industry or financial services sector, we want to broaden the conversation around innovative suicide prevention solutions.

As a community, we cannot afford to have yet another year of suicide growing in our midst just as we reach 25 straight years without a recession. It’s time we realised that suicide is not only an individual phenomenon but a societal issue with many social contributors.

To quote Liberal MP for Berowra Mr Julian Leeser’s powerful and heartbreaking recent maiden speech to the House of Representatives regarding his father’s suicide:

Treating depression as purely a medical issue is not working. Rather we need to rebuild caring communities where people know and notice the signs and acknowledge the people around them. Where we ask “Are you OK?”, or more directly “Are you contemplating suicide?”. And we need to create the conditions where those who are thinking about suicide feel comfortable enough to ask for help.

Pete Shmigel has more than 20 years of experience at the highest levels of Australian public policy, business and consulting. Now, as the CEO of Lifeline Australia – the country’s largest crisis support and suicide prevention service – Smigel says his experience has taught him the value of listening with love and care; something that Lifeline’s incredibly kind-hearted volunteers have done on the phones for 53 years.

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