Frank Quinlan speech: suicide statistics released


This month, we received the latest statistics on suicide in Australia. 

They revealed 3,128 Australians lost their lives to suicide in 2017. That makes suicide the leading cause of death for Australians between 15 and 44 years.

That also means, in the week since the report was published, a further 60 Australians are likely to have lost their lives to suicide.

I am acutely aware as I quote figures like these, the statistics can sometime inadvertently mask or disguise the profound pain and loss that each and every death by suicide represents. This is the lost opportunity and potential of each unique life, and the associated pain of loved ones, friends, work colleagues, doctors, emergency service personnel, neighbours, bystanders and others.

But I am also aware that unless we confront the statistics, there is little chance that we will curb the steep rising trajectory of suicide rates in Australia. And the pain and loss that stems from suicide will be incurred by a continually growing number of family members, friends and loved ones around Australia who are left to pick up the pieces.

So I make the following observations:

  • How can it be that Australians dying by suicide every three hours is not more newsworthy, and not more deserving of concerted national attention? And...
  • How can it be that we still only know about the number of deaths by suicide so long after they have occurred? A small decline in the number during 2016 is only now confirmed as a statistical 'blip' on the radar, not a sustained downward trend.

I grew up in an era when attitudes to road deaths were changing.

In the face of spiralling road deaths, television news and newspapers ran prominent daily and weekly updates on Australia's road tolls.

Our road laws were changed. Seatbelts were enforced. Driver education was expanded. Manufacturers were forced to design and build safer cars. Drink driving was prohibited. Highway 'blackspots' were identified and their systematic removal commenced. Roadways were redesigned. Programs were developed using bicycles and toy cars to better educate children on the hazards of the road. First responders received specialised training; they became more equipped to deal with road trauma. Our televisions (in the absence of social media) were filled with images that were often so graphic and so frequent that there was public debate about whether governments were going too far!

In the year that I obtained my drivers' license, there were 3,403 deaths on Australian roads. By the same time last year, this number was less than half, down to 1,225.

But even more starkly, in the year I started driving, there were 22 road deaths per 100,000 Australians. Last year this number been reduced to 5 in 100,000.

During an interview for World Mental Health Day this week, Julia Gillard AC told Fran Kelly on ABC's RN Breakfast that “Everybody recognises [suicide] is an incredibly hard problem; every suicide is as individual as the person involved". She said the answer to reducing rates of suicide in Australia is about finding the right supports and services that people need in those 'desperate moments'.

We will only reduce the suicide rate when we make a lasting and concerted commitment to do so. When we set goals and targets and monitor progress closely and expertly. When we address each of the specific factors that contribute and invest to scale in the interventions that work to address mental health issues, loneliness, economic disadvantage, relationship breakdown, social exclusion and disconnection - to name just a few.

As our progress on reducing the road toll demonstrates, we can achieve real change and we can save lives. We just need to make it a high enough priority.