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Suicide in Australia

Suicide is a preventable death that has very complex issues underlying it. According to the World Health Organization, each year approximately one million individuals commit suicide worldwide—one death every 40 seconds. Many more attempt suicide (around 10–20 million) each year. Suicide is ranked as one of the three leading causes of death among people aged 15–44.

In Australia, 2132 deaths were as a result of suicide in 2009—six deaths per day—higher than transport accident deaths (1479). Even though suicide deaths are relatively small (out of a total of 140 760 registered deaths), it is a leading cause of death, ranked 14th in 2009 (the same as in 2000) but, more significantly, ranked 10th as a cause of death amongst males.

Suicide is predominantly a male cause of death with 76.6 per cent of all suicide deaths. Among young males, a quarter (22 per cent) of all deaths for those aged 15–24 were due to suicide (2009), greater than deaths resulting from transport accidents ( 17.8 per cent ).

In 2009, the suicide rate per 100 000 of the population was 14.9 for males and 4.5 for females; however, the suicide rate has been declining, as can be seen in the graph. In 1999, the rate for males was 21.3 and 5.1 for females. Currently, the highest age-specific suicide rate was observed for males aged 85 years and over (28.2 per cent) even though the actual number of deaths is quite small (36 deaths in 2009). For males aged 40–44 the rate was 22.9 and 22.7 for males aged 35–39. For females, the highest rate was recorded for those aged 50–54 (8.8), followed by 30–34 (6.4).

In 2009, the median age of suicide deaths was 43.4 years for males and 44.9 for females. In comparison, the median age of all deaths is 77.8 years for males and 83.9 for females.

Suicide deaths are significantly higher for Indigenous Australians. Suicide accounted for four per cent of all Indigenous deaths in 2009 (97 deaths) compared to 1.5 per cent for the total population.

The severity of suicide is highlighted in the ABS National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (2007) where respondents were asked if they had ‘serious thoughts’, ‘made plans’ or ‘attempted’ suicide in the 12 months prior to the survey. The number of people who indicated that they had serious thoughts was 368 100 people or 2.3 per cent of persons aged 16–85. The number of people who had made plans to commit suicide was 91 000 and 65 300 had attempted suicide—equivalent to 179 attempts each day.

The number of suicide deaths for 2008 and 2009 are preliminary and likely to be revised upwards. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics:
“All external causes of death are examined by the coroner, who investigates both the mechanism by which a person died, and the intention of the injury (whether accidental, intentional or assault). For a death to be determined as suicide, it must be established by coronial enquiry that the death resulted from a deliberate act of the deceased with the intention of ending his or her own life."
As a result some cases are still open and the cause of death is yet to be determined by the coroner; therefore, care should be taken in using and interpreting the most recent suicide data.

Age-specific death rate: The number of deaths during the reference year at a specified age per 100 000 of the estimated resident population of the same age at the mid-point of the year (30 June).

World Health Organization (WHO), ‘How can suicide be prevented?’, WHO website

H Hendin et al, eds, Suicide and suicide prevention in Asia, WHO, Geneva, 2008, p. 1

ABS Cause of Death, Australia, 2009, Cat no. 3303.0

ABS, National survey of mental health and wellbeing: summary of results, 2007, cat. no. 4326.0, Canberra, 2008