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Youth suicide: people are "falling through the cracks"

Young people are falling through the cracks, revea
Photo: Youth suicide: people are "falling through the cracks"
Young men remain overly represented in a new study highlighting “concerning” trends in youth suicide, as experts call for system-wide improvements so that people at risk can better access timely care when they need it.

An analysis of National Coronial Information, published recently in the MJA, found that 3365 young people (aged 10–24 years) died by suicide in Australia between 2006 and 2015. Of these deaths, 2473 (73.5%) were among young men, and 1292 people (38.4%) lived in areas of greater socio-economic disadvantage.

Lead author of the study, Ms Nicole Hill from Telethon Kids Institute, said young people who die from suicide experience multiple demographic, clinical and social risk factors, such as a history of mental ill-health, past suicidal behaviour, economic disadvantage and a history of adversity.
“We found that 73% of young people had a diagnosed or probable mental health disorder including substance misuse and history of self-harm”, she told HealthTimes.

“That figure is startling given that it represents what would be a clear indicator that a young person is in distress.”

“We’re really thinking that this period of adverse mental health prior to suicide is a critical window for suicide prevention in young people.”

Co-author of the study, Associate Professor Jo Robinson, who leads Orygen’s suicide prevention research, said that despite significant investment in prevention, the number of youth suicides had not substantially decreased.

“We clearly need to address the role of mental illness in youth suicides in this country.”

“The fact that so many of the young people who have died by suicide had a diagnosed, or probable, mental health problem, and many had sought help for their mental health yet were not in contact with services at the time of their death, is extremely concerning.”

“There are tragic consequences for missing obvious opportunities to intervene early to support and treat young people with mental health challenges”, Professor Robinson said.

Ms Hill explained there were a number of reasons why Australia has struggled to bring down youth suicide rates – one reason being the availability and access to mental health services.

“We see a real bottleneck in the system where people are presenting for services or presenting to a GP, for example, and there’s an incredibly long wait list time.”

“That means they are not able to see a therapist or a psychiatrist in that immediate period when they are most distressed, so this is one of the key challenges in terms of the system”, she said.

“But one of the other things we found in this study was the issue around equity, where 40% of young people who died from suicide were from areas considered the most socio-economically disadvantaged areas in Australia.”

Ms Hill said this highlighted how socio-economic disadvantage may be a contributor to suicide in young people, and an area of focus for prevention strategies going forward.

Regarding what can realistically be done to bring down youth suicide rates more effectively, Ms Hill said reducing stigma remained an area of priority.

“There are multiple steps that we can take. On the individual level, we can start by destigmatising the way we think about mental health and suicide, so that young people who are in distress feel more comfortable going to a trusted adult or friend without fear of being turned away.”

“We also need system-level changes, like improving the waitlist time to get into organisations like headspace, and increasing accessibility so that young people aren’t falling through the cracks.”

Ms Hill said there was much potential in the area of digital mental health services.

“We know that young people are digital experts. The ability to promote online and digital interventions to bridge the gap between seeing a GP and getting into a service is one advantage, as well as providing young people with a toolkit before
they are able to see someone face to face.”

“Digital mental health services have also improved accessibility for young people who may not want to or feel comfortable seeing someone face to face.

“This is definitely an area of innovation where there’s a lot of improvement occurring, and COVID-19 certainly pushed us into the direction where services have had to become more digitised.”  

“But all these things need to be properly evaluated in order to become a gold standard treatment for young people”, added Ms Hill.

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Charlotte Mitchell

Charlotte is a published journalist and editor, with 10 years of experience in developing high-quality content for national and international publications.

With an academic background in both science and communications, she specialises in medical and science writing. Charlotte is passionate about creating engaging, evidence-based content that equips the community with important information on issues around healthcare, medicine and research.

Over the years, she has partnered with organisations including the Medical Journal of Australia, Cancer Council NSW, Bupa, the Australasian Medical Publishing Company, Dementia Australia, MDA National, pharmaceutical companies, and state and federal government agencies, to produce high-impact news and clinical content  for different audiences.