‘War zone’ fatalities: Deadly cost of mental health taboo
BEHIND the beauty of the Whitsundays is an undercurrent of loneliness that has turned the region into a suicide hotspot.
Analysis of Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data from 2015 to 2019 revealed the Whitsunday region had the seventh highest suicide rate in Queensland.
The AIHW found there were 22.9 suicides per 100,000 people in the Whitsundays.
Over the same time period, 106 people in the Mackay region took their own lives, or 18.8 deaths per 100,000 people.
Mackay had the 21st worst rate of suicide in the state.
The two areas fell into a deadly pattern for rural and regional Australians as natural disasters combined with a lack of mental health services and job opportunities have made the bush a hotspot for suicide.
The AIHW data revealed all but one of the 20 deadliest postcodes for suicide are all in rural Queensland, Western Australian, the Northern Territory and Tasmania.
A significant problem has also been identified in major city centres, as well as at Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast.
The sobering statistics come as the country struggles to recover from the economic fallout from COVID-19 pandemic.
News Corp Australia this week launches Mental Health 360, bringing together mental health experts and those touched by it first-hand.
Panel experts include former Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry, Sydney University's Professor Ian Hickie, child psychiatrist Professor Jon Jureidini, Chris Turton who lost his son Dan to suicide, Kids Helpline CEO Tracy Adams and country music star and Rural Advisory Mental Health Program ambassador Melinda Schneider.
Together with senior journalists Sue Dunlevy, Ben Pike, Natasha Bita and Kathy McCabe, Mental Health 360 dissects what is arguably the biggest issue impacting Australians.
Orygen executive director and 2010 Australian of the Year Professor Pat McGorry said the statistics were "so shocking - it's like a war zone".
"There's more than 15,500 people who have died in that five-year period," the Mental Health 360 panel expert said.
"If the cause of death were something different - like drownings or car accidents - it would be in people's faces and on the front page.
"But because of the taboo, and that it is not spoken about freely, it's muffled conversation, tinged with shame still. Suicide is still a largely hidden death toll.
"Even though there are hot spots in some areas with twice the rate of others, it is the uniformity of suicide that has really struck me. Communities are losing dozens of people every five years"
January and February are the deadliest months for suicides, according to the AIHW, with the most common contributing factors to suicide including a history of self-harm, disruption of family by separation and divorce, relationship problems, the disappearance and death of a family member and legal problems.
Between 2017 and 2019 the contributing factors that saw significant increases included relationship problems, social exclusion and rejection and a family history of mental illness.
Sydney University's Brain and Mind Centre policy co-director Professor Ian Hickie said employment, education and opportunities were also big factors.
"In rural and regional areas unemployment rates are higher, there are more poor people and opportunities are less for employment and participation," Prof Hickie said.
"There are also economies which are subject to more rapid changes in fortune whether that be natural events - such as floods and other natural disasters - or through the opening and closing of key industries.
"Young people, Indigenous people, people with very limited education and skills are over represented - all of which create a background of higher intrinsic suicide rates in those communities."
Redcliffe in Brisbane's northern suburbs has that city's highest suicide rate, followed by inner Brisbane - which lost 19.6 people per 100,000 to suicide between 2015-2019.
The inner city areas of Sydney and Adelaide both have the highest suicide rates, respectively, while inner Melbourne suicide rate is one of the city's lowest.
"People who are marginalised and disconnected come to the inner city," Prof Hickie said.
"The inner city has a much higher rate of mental health problems; not from living in the city - but from when people become disconnected."
Suicide Prevention Australia CEO Nieves Murray said the causes of suicide were complex. "There are various factors that may contribute to suicide and they aren't always linked to mental ill-health," she said.
She also said psychosocial risk factors - how social factors like housing impact on an individual - were associated causes of death for 90 per cent of suicides.