What do we do now that suicide rates among young women are on the rise?

The 50 per cent rise in the suicide rate of young women aged 15-24 is particularly troubling.

The 50 per cent rise in the suicide rate of young women aged 15-24 is particularly troubling. Photo: Stocksy

Jack Heath remembers her this way: a single mum on a disability pension. She had two darling teenage daughters, and she tried to do some extra work because that's what we do when we have kids. We try to provide for them the best we can.

She was on a disability pension because of a diagnosis of both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Yes, over the years, she'd been in and out of hospital but now she was well, she felt alive and worth something. It was at that moment that some fool of a politician started talking about lifters and leaners.

This woman never ever wanted to be classified as a leaner. That was the whole point of her efforts for her kids, for herself. Yes, she had a disability but that was not going to get in the way of her contribution, so she worked even harder. You know how when you are in a black hole, you start to focus on the smallest things. And the lifter /leaner thing really got to her. She said to Heath: "I don't want to be a burden."


Life began to spin out of control and she ended up in hospital again.

Worth something. That's key, says Heath, the CEO of SANE Australia.

That feeling we have about ourselves - that we are worth something, that we can contribute, that we are not a burden - may well be the key to unlocking one of the great mysteries of modern health, why so many of us attempt suicide, or die by suicide.

News this month that rates of suicide in Australia are rising again appalled so many of us. The latest figures, from 2014, show we have the highest rate of suicide we have had in 13 years.

It's the first time in those years that the number of deaths per 100,000 Australians has climbed to over 12. Every three hours, we lose someone to suicide. There is a steep rise among middle-aged Australians and also among young women. As The Sydney Morning Herald reported last week, the rate of suicide in women aged 15-24 jumped by 50 per cent over the same period to 6.3 per 100,000, compared to a two per cent increase for men, who accounted for 75 per cent of the 362 suicides in that age group in 2014.

And it appalled and shocked not just those who work in suicide prevention, nor just those who work in mental health. All of us. Because as any person who works in suicide prevention will tell you, we've all been hurt by suicide. Someone in the office, someone we love, someone we met, someone's child, yes, child. That little ten-year-old girl just last week.

For Heath, it was his young cousin, who died by suicide in 1992. The cousin was in his early twenties and Jack Heath was already embarked on his big life, a career in government, even working for the former Prime Minister Paul Keating. But something about his cousin's death worked on him. Heath was already dealing with his own chronic fatigue, some episodes of depression, some episodes of mania. He left Keating's office after six months, took some time out and then set about establishing ReachOut, an online mental health service specifically for the under-25s. Now he's at SANE Australia, a national mental health charity.

So he's spent nearly 20 years trying to be part of the solution. What do we need now that these terrible figures are on the rise again?

Kindness, for one. Kindness and the reminder that we are all able to contribute in some way or another. That's a thing we can do, to eradicate the cruel notion of lifters and leaners. But that's an individual tactic and there needs to be a more overarching approach.

"Yes, we need money but we also need will and leadership.

"And the place of leadership is so important. Money and more money is good but it's not enough. We have a history of handing over $200 million to causes but we must set goals, goals over a ten-year period."

Money and more money is not enough. Jaelea Skehan knows that too. She's the director of the Hunter Institute of Mental Health and has been a researcher, advocate, educator, organiser in mental health for nearly two decades. Since the figures came out late last week, she's been dealing with the fall out - not just the immediate public impact but the personal effect those figures have had on so many who work in suicide prevention.

What went wrong when just a few years ago we had tremendous success in cutting youth suicide by half?

Skehan says we must refresh the way we have approached this. Yes, it's about funding and getting the funding to the areas which need it. But it's also about having a national plan and national targets. The federal government has been slow to renew our national approach, but it must be implemented and quickly.

"The last big spike we had was in 1997 - and that was the last time we had real national leadership and coordinated action under our first national suicide prevention strategy. The last few years, we've only had one-year rolling contracts for suicide prevention programs and a sense of just doing more of the same."

She says that even when the national program is approved and ready to go, we need to make sure the regional approaches are coordinated and well-planned. And of course the regional programs will have to go to tender. More time. So much more time.

Is it still worth asking people if they are ok, if there are no solid services to support them?

Skehan says we need a balance.

"It is important for us to raise community awareness but we also need to make sure that we have a system which can respond to people if they need assistance. There is little point in asking if we don't have the local and national resources to respond to those who need care and support."

As she says, there is no way to present the new figures in a positive light.

"And what we have now is people sharing their sense of despondency, but it is important we try to find a balance in our messages.

"Our country has shown it can turn suicide rates around and quickly. We need to focus on getting there again."

If you or anyone you know needs help, ring these services:

Lifeline 13 11 14

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467