Australian prevalence estimates of suicidal behaviours
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Suicidal thoughts and behaviours include suicidal ideation (thoughts about taking one’s own life), making suicide plans and attempting suicide.
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 (Demesmaeker et al. 2022, Mendez-Bustos et al. 2013).
Nationally representative population surveys can collect data on the prevalence of suicidal thoughts and behaviours in Australia, the incidence of which may be underestimated in administrative datasets such as the National Hospital Morbidity Database and the National Ambulance Surveillance System (see Intentional self-harm hospitalisations and Ambulance attendances). National survey data play an important role in identifying population groups at increased risk of suicidal behaviours and informing suicide prevention activities and efforts to reduce stigma and increase help-seeking behaviour.
The National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing program of surveys began in the late 1990s. In 2020 the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing was introduced as a component of the wider Intergenerational Health and Mental Health Study. The first of these, the 2020–22 National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing measured the 12-month and lifetime prevalence of mental illnesses in Australia for the first time since the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. In addition to data on suicidal thoughts and behaviours, which were collected in 2007, the 2020–22 study also collected data on: health service use due to thoughts or plans to take one’s own life; confiding in another person about thoughts or plans to take one’s own life, being close to someone who took or attempted to take their own life; whether services were used afterwards; and self-harm behaviours (intentional self-harm without suicidal intent). The 2020–22 study was also the first ABS collection to use the Standard for Sex, Gender, Variations of Sex Characteristics and Sexual Orientation Variables (ABS 2020, 2020–22b). However, to date, only data disaggregated by sex assigned at birth (male/female) have been reported for suicide and self-harm variables.
Summary statistics for the 2020–22 National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing were released by the ABS on 5 October 2023 (ABS 2020–22a). In this publication, the results for suicide and self-harm are disaggregated by age-group and sex assigned at birth (male/female). The results for suicidal thoughts and behaviours are not directly comparable with those from the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing as different questions were used.
Results from the 2020–22 National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing (ABS 2020–22a) indicate that:
- One in 6 (16.7% or around 3.3 million) Australians aged 16–85 had experienced serious thoughts about taking their own life at some point in their lives.
- Around 1.5 million or 7.4% of Australians aged 16–85 years had made a suicide plan and around 970,000 or 4.9% had attempted suicide during their lifetime.
- Females were more likely to be suicidal than males, with a higher prevalence of suicidal thoughts and behaviours in their lifetime (18.3% compared with 15.0%). 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; visit Deaths by suicide over time.
- Young people and adults aged 16–34 years reported the highest prevalence of suicidal thoughts and behaviours in the 12 months before the administration of the study (4.9% of people aged 16–34 years).
- In their lifetimes, 36.2% of Australians aged 16–85 years were close to someone who took or attempted to take their own life, while 4.7% were close to someone who took or attempted to take their own life in the 12 months prior to the study.
- The prevalence of lifetime and past 12 months self-harm (without suicidal intent) was highest in the youngest age group (16–24, 20.4% and 6.0%, respectively) and decreased with increasing age (2.2% and 0.4%, respectively for those aged 55–85).
- Self-harm prevalence was higher for females than for males. 27.9% of females aged 16-24 had self-harmed in their lifetimes, 8.7% in the past 12 months, compared with 13.6% and 3.3% of males in this age group, respectively.
For full results visit National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Please note that some of the 12-month prevalence estimates have high relative standard error (RSE) and margin of error (MOE), and thus wide confidence intervals and greater uncertainty. These results should be interpreted with caution. Refer to the ABS technical notes on interpretation of results with high RSEs & MOEs (visit National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing methodology). See glossary for a definition of confidence intervals.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2020) Standard for Sex, Gender, Variations of Sex Characteristics and Sexual Orientation Variables, ABS website, accessed 4 July 2023.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2020–2022a) National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing, ABS website, accessed 17 October 2023.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2020–22b) National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing methodology, ABS website, accessed 2 June 2023.
Demesmaeker A, Chazard E, Hoang A, Vaiva G & Amad A (2022) 'Suicide mortality after a nonfatal suicide attempt: A systematic review and meta-analysis', The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 56(6): 603–616, https://doi.org/10.1177/00048674211043455.
Mendez-Bustos P, de Leon-Martinez V, Miret M, Baca-Garcia E, Lopez-Castroman J (2013) 'Suicide reattempters: a systematic review', Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 21(6): 281–295, doi: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000001.