Suicide prevention in Australia: sex, guns, and money

19 March 2008

New research in the respected international journal Health Policy suggests that Australian men may be benefiting from the introduction of national suicide prevention strategies in the mid to late 1990s.

Sydney University School of Psychology researcher Dr Samara McPhedran, and her colleague Dr Jeanine Baker, examined Australian suicide trends by gender. They found that male suicides appear to have fallen more quickly than female suicides over the past decade.

"Males represent around 80 per cent of all suicides in Australia, and reducing the incidence of male suicide is an important public health goal. Considerable effort has gone into raising men's awareness about mental health and encouraging men to seek help if they are experiencing distress," said Dr McPhedran.

"However, we urge policymakers to pay close attention to high risk groups with special needs, as well as risk factors for female suicide such as intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, and substance dependence."

The paper also compared rates of decline across different suicide methods, taking advantage of the quasi-experimental design provided by the 1996 gun law reforms to compare trends in firearm and non-firearm suicides.

"Male non-firearm suicides fell more quickly than either male firearm suicides or female non-firearm suicides. This contradicts the expectation that tightening gun laws would lead to faster declines in firearm suicide, relative to non-firearm suicide."

"It seems that trying to prevent suicide by tightening gun laws is like trying to fix a leaking tap by turning it off with more and more force every time, rather than changing the washer. When it comes to suicide prevention, changing the washer means early detection, intervention, and appropriate treatment."

The study notes that economic variables seemingly affect Australian male suicide more than female suicide, which has implications for gender-specific public health policy and suicide prevention campaigns.

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