Australian prevalence estimates of suicidal behaviours

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Suicidal behaviours are defined as thinking about or planning taking one’s own life (suicidal ideation) or attempting suicide.

Understanding the prevalence of suicidal behaviours in Australia is important as this may help to reduce stigma, increase help-seeking behaviour and improve suicide prevention activities.

Many people experience thoughts of suicide:

  • the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing indicated that 2.1 million or 1 in 8 (13%) Australians aged 16–85 had serious thoughts about taking their own life at some point in their lives (Slade et al. 2009).

Yet, while thinking about suicide is common, not everyone goes on to develop a suicide plan or take their own lives. Despite this, it is important to take seriously any person seeking assistance because of suicidal thoughts.

People who experience suicidal ideation and make suicide plans are at increased risk of suicide attempts and those who experience all forms of suicidal thoughts and behaviours are at greater risk of dying by suicide (see Psychosocial risk factors and suicide).

The National Suicide and Self-harm Monitoring Project has funded the collection of data on suicidal behaviours through the National Ambulance Surveillance System. This system uses coded ambulance clinical records from jurisdictional ambulance services across Australia to capture information related to ambulance attendances for mental health and self-harm behaviours (see Ambulance attendances). However, not all people with suicidal behaviours will make contact with these services. Instead, an indication of the prevalence of these behaviours in the community may be derived from surveys of representative samples of the population.

A program of surveys, the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, began in Australia in the late 1990s. The 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing provided information on the 12-month and lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in the Australian population aged 16–85 years. The Intergenerational Health and Mental Health Study, designed to measure the prevalence of mental illnesses in Australia for the first time since the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, was scheduled to be undertaken in 2020 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics; however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic this face-to-face survey has been delayed.

Results from the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (Slade et al. 2009) indicate that:

  • over 600,000 Australians aged 16–85 had made a suicide plan and over 500,000 attempted suicide during their lifetime
  • females were more likely to be suicidal than males, with a higher prevalence of suicidal ideation in the 12 months before the administration of the survey (2.7% vs 1.9%). These findings are in contrast to the data on deaths by suicide, which show that males are more likely than females to die by suicide. (See Deaths by suicide over time)
  • young females aged 16–24 reported the highest prevalence of suicidal behaviours in the 12 months before the administration of the survey (5.1% of females aged 16–24 years)
  • mental health service use was relatively high among people who attempted suicide (73.4%) or made a suicide plan (68%) in the 12 months before the administration of the survey. However, although mental health service use was high for those who reported suicidal behaviours, 1 in 4 (25%) people who attempted suicide did not access services for mental health problems in the previous 12 months.

Reference

Slade T, Johnston A, Teesson M, Whiteford, H, Burgess P, Pirkis J, Saw S 2009. The mental health of Australians 2. Report on the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Department of Health and Ageing, Canberra.