14 May 2020

COVID-19 suicide data won't be known until late 2021

| Dominic Giannini
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Mental Health Minister Shane Rattenbury

Mental Health Minister Shane Rattenbury says the ACT is focusing on the prevention and early intervention of suicides through various initiatives and funding packages. Photo: Region Media.

Australians have been transfixed on the most up-to-date coronavirus figures and modelling, but what if the statistics were not released until the end of 2021?

That is when Australia’s 2020 suicide figures will be released.

Causes of death data from the preceding year are normally released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) towards the end of the year, which means an accurate snapshot of the effect the pandemic has had on mental health might not be known until 18 months after the event.

Executive director of Orygen Youth Health and esteemed mental health researcher Professor Patrick McGorry said the delay of the data was like looking at the light of a star from centuries ago.

“You are seeing the past and not the present, you are not in real-time,” he told the ABC.

“You cannot respond in an agile and decisive way if you are dealing with stuff that is two years out of date.”

His comments came in light of research from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre predicting that suicides could increase by as much as 50 per cent in Australia because of the pandemic – or an extra 1,500 people in 2020, with an increase of up to 30 per cent among young people aged 15­ to 25 years.

The ACT Mental Health Minister Shane Rattenbury says that while data may be anecdotal at this point, the Government’s recently released $4.5 million mental health package provides a snapshot of what community needs are at the moment.

“The history suggests, and all the research points to the fact, that the stressors we are seeing through COVID-19 – particularly the financial stress – will potentially increase the rate of suicide. We are very cognisant of that,” he told Region Media.

“Of course we have the anecdotal feedback, the people in the sector do pick up the trends even though the data comes much later which is certainly why we are investing now … to try and be pre-emptive in that sense and bolster the support services.

“Certainly having more timely suicide data would be helpful, but I think that is a longer-term project – I think we really need to react to this now, we do not need data to tell us the increased risk is there.”

Nationally, Lifeline has seen demand increase by 25 per cent. Demand for services from Beyond Blue has increased by 40 per cent.

The ABS receives causes of death data annually from the states and territories and then compiles it into its annual publication.

“The 2018 full year stats were published in September 2019. We do not yet have 2020 data,” and ABS spokesperson told Region Media.

“As suicides take some time to be investigated by the coroner it will be a considerable amount of time before we have enough data to accurately code and publish data on these.”

Professor Patrick McGorry

Professor Patrick McGorry says more timely data is needed to paint a clearer picture of suicides in Australia. Photo: Orygen.

This answer was reaffirmed by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) when approached by Region Media.

“The AIHW does not hold complete data on more recent suspected deaths by suicide,” a spokesperson said.

“However, as part of the National Suicide and Self-harm Surveillance System, the AIHW is working with Monash University to develop a national system of reporting on ambulance attendances including call outs to injury by suicidal self-harm.

“These data will give some insight into changes in suicidal behaviour in the community in a more timely fashion than is currently possible.”

All Australian state and territory governments signed onto a national suicide register in 2019 and is set to be completed in 2022 to provide more time-sensitive suicide statistics.

Coordinator-General of the ACT Office of Mental Health and Wellbeing Dr Elizabeth Moore said that while a national register will be a valuable addition to the repertoire of health authorities, the ACT’s focus remains on prevention and early intervention.

“The ACT Government is committed to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of the ACT community by focusing on the integration of services, prevention and early support,” she said in a statement provided to Region Media.

“The ACT understands that the issue Professor McGorry is particular seeking to address in having more timely data is to enable the rapid identification of suicide hotspots or clusters.

“Mechanisms such as the partnership models in Lifespan, and cooperation amongst government and non-government agencies ensures communication of trends or points of concern, so that we are not left waiting for the data to arrive, but can take action well before that.”

Despite calls to bring the national register forward because of COVID-19, the veracity, integrity and confidentially of the data needs to be ensured, Dr Moore said.

“Suicide prevention is a complex area of policy, requiring multiple strategies to address,” she said.

“This is why the ACT Government established the Black Dog Institute’s LifeSpan Integrated Suicide Prevention Framework in the ACT in 2018.”


The ACT Government established the Black Dog Institute’s (BDI) LifeSpan Integrated Suicide
Prevention Framework in the ACT in 2018. Photo: BDI.

In the ACT’s most recent stimulus package, The Way Back Support Service, which focuses on people who have attempted suicide or are in a suicide crisis, received $200,000 while emergency response services received over $1.4 million to expand their operations.

If you or anyone you know needs mental health support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 for 24-hour crisis support. In an emergency, call triple-zero (000).

Dedicated mental health and wellbeing resources are also available through the ACT Health’s COVID-19 website.

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