One in four Australians know or know of somebody who has taken their own lives or tried to in the past 12 months, new research shows, as concerns over the impact of the pandemic on mental health grows.
More than 1000 adults were surveyed online last month, in a study commissioned by Suicide Prevention Australia, which found 15 per cent of respondents directly knew someone who had died by suicide or attempted it in the past year.
Another 11 per cent said they indirectly knew someone who had attempted suicide.
"We know social and economic isolation are the biggest drivers of suicide rates and COVID-19 has seen Australians subject to 18 months of rolling lockdowns and disruption to their personal lives, employment and businesses," said Suicide Prevention Australia CEO Nieves Murray.
"We've seen how quickly COVID-19 cases can get out of hand and we need to have the same national policy focus and vigilance to stop suicide rates doing the same."
The national health data agency is yet to report any evidence that COVID-19 has led to more suicides, but says national events can influence those numbers. The spike could still be coming.
The AIHW has reported a rise in the use of mental health services and an increase in psychological distress.
Trips to emergency for self-harm or suicidal ideation in children and teens are up 31 per cent in NSW compared with last year, Nine newspapers reported.
And hospitalisations of young people for mental health emergencies are up 57 per cent in the past year in Victoria, according to The Australian.
Likewise, crisis hotline Lifeline is seeing a record number of calls.
Speaking to the media on Saturday, its chair John Brogden said the nation was in the grips of a widespread mental health crisis.
"I know what it is like to live with mental illness during COVID," he said.
"People are doing it tough. We have seen a significant increase children and adolescents in their mental health illness, in their suicidality, and in stress and depression and anxiety.
"People are reaching out in the sort of numbers that we have never seen before."
To boost their mental health, Mr Brogden urged those struggling to keep to a routine, exercise regularly and reach out if they need help.
But he last week told ABC radio government had a role to play too. Wage subsidy program JobKeeper should be brought back to save lives.
"The answers to people's mental health are not simply about the mental health budget, it's about giving people housing and financial security," he said.
His plea is supported by the survey respondents, who named social isolation, unemployment and job security, and family and relationship breakdowns as the biggest risks for suicide rates.
Suicide Prevention Australia says the crisis calls for a law that would require all government decisions to consider and address suicide risks.
Two-thirds of the survey respondents agreed that all government decisions should consider the risk of suicide and have clear plans to mitigate any negative impacts following the decision.
Ten per cent disagreed.
The research suggests that the majority of Australians agree there should be a stand-alone Suicide Prevention Act like that in Japan, Ms Murray said.
"The heightened economic and social threat posed by COVID-19 means we cannot afford to wait to legislate," she said.
The survey data is included in a report called "The State of the Nation" to be released on September 10, World Suicide Prevention Day.
Lifeline 13 11 14
beyondblue 1300 22 4636
Australian Associated Press
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