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The rising suicide rate in Australia is not reflected by government spending, but money is needed to curb our growing epidemic.
Trigger warning: readers who may find the topic distressing are advised this article addresses youth suicide and mental health. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or tendencies, please seek professional help or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
She remembered it was a Thursday. She remembered, because she had gone to yoga early in the evening and was having a bath afterwards. While she was drying herself, she had heard a few bangs, but thought nothing of it. Boys make noise, she was used to that, and David was rowdy at the best of times. It was a little after eight by then, and she had gotten dressed in a t-shirt and sweatpants. No need for anything more; time to go to bed in a few hours. She had watched some TV, a game show or something, and at nine she went upstairs to get the boys to bed. Mark was in his room making one of his complicated drawings. They had a brief talk, then she went to David’s. The door jammed and she had to push hard to get in. She was annoyed about that; she had asked him to clean his room at dinner. Went she finally got inside and saw him, at first it didn’t register. Or to be more precise: she knew what she was looking at, but she didn’t know what it meant. There was her son, hanging from the top of his bunk bed. He had a rope around his neck and although his eyes were open, he was clearly dead.
He was nine years old.
Last week, former Australian of the Year Pat McGorry severely criticised politicians from all sides for ignoring mental health in their election campaigns. He was especially scathing of the fact that all we seem to do at the moment is “raise awareness” instead of actually doing something. “Action” is what is needed: money needs to be invested, correcting the “massive under-spend” McGorry thinks we are guilty of. One of the reasons is the worsening suicide rate. According to a recent report by the Brain and Mind Centre of the University of Sydney and consultancy ConNetica, suicide rates in Australia have risen by 20 percent between 2004 and 2014. Lifeline even calls it a “national emergency”, but so far, the Government has not responded with any urgency.
Because “awareness” is what counts, apparently, this story and this figure: between 2010 and 2014, 88 children between the ages of five and 14 killed themselves. In fact, suicide was the leading cause of death in that age category. A quarter of those were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children; three-quarters were not. There are problems with the numbers: coronial reporting practices lead to differences in counts across the jurisdictions. And it depends on who is counting. If you don’t want to believe children kill themselves, you tend to classify the deaths as an accident. So there is a distinct possibility that the real number is higher. But still: 88 children!
The paramedics came for David. There was an autopsy and a funeral. But his mother can’t remember any of that. She still feels like she is wading through treacle, and her son has been dead for three years now. They have moved house since then. Because she couldn’t live in the place where it had happened, but also because she couldn’t work anymore. She had been an accountant, but numbers are unintelligible now. Her brain seems to be floating in her skull, making no connection to anything much. She takes care of Mark. That is the extent of her life. If she is honest she is waiting for that job to be over, so she can leave the world as well. She is so tired, so incredibly tired. It would be good to have a little more support from the boys’ father, but she is in two minds about that. All this started when he got sacked and then left them. She can’t be sure, but sometimes she thinks that is why David did it. Because he missed his father and was worried about the future. She wishes he had talked to her about it. Then she could have explained that they were doing perfectly well on one income, that everything was under control.
Children all around the world, including Australia, are killing themselves. And families are left devastated. The report by the Brain and Mind Institute links suicide to economic uncertainty. It says that if Governments “apply harsh fiscal austerity measures, a lot of people will die from suicide.” Recent research, led by Oxford University and published in The Lancet, added another probable trigger: the increased prescription of antidepressants and antipsychotics to children. It warned that not only are these medications usually ineffective, they may cause serious harm, including suicide attempts. What is even scarier, is that the rate of prescriptions to young children is growing exponentially in Australia. According to PBS data, antidepressant scripts rose 16 percent between 2009 and 2012, antipsychotics 23 percent. And the biggest rise was among 10-14 year olds, with 35.5 percent and 49 percent respectively. More than 1,000 children between two and six years old are taking these kinds of medications, with a further 26,000 between six and 16! Whatever is happening, and whatever the cause of the problem is, it seems to me that Pat McGorry is right: we are aware, now let’s do something about it. So we can prevent children from hanging themselves from their bunk beds. And their mothers from finding them there.