Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Suicide Blondes and Blacks

By Simon Grose

Common perceptions of the incidence of suicide are shaped more by populist fears than real data.

We are weathering many crises these days, mainly because “crisis” is an over-exercised word as protagonists and agonists beat up their concerns. When it comes to suicide, “epidemic” is a subset of the crisis mentality, generally applied by mental health lobbyists to attract attention to the prevalence of people choosing to actively spin out of the mortal coil.

In April, on Q&A, former House Speaker Anna Burke said: “Suicide is an epidemic but we don’t talk about it”. If you google “suicide epidemic” keywords like “indigenous”, “veterans” and “teenage” lead the lists on your screen. It’s a worry, until you get some stats.

“For every later year, the reported number of suicide deaths has been lower than in 1999–00”. That’s from Trends in Injury Deaths, Australia: 1999–00 to 2009–10, published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) in May this year.

“The largest difference occurred in 2004–05 when there were 473 fewer suicide deaths than in 1999–00 … the average annual decrease was 3.4% per year between 2001–02 and 2007–08.”

The table below, from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, shows the same trend over a slightly later decadal period. It’s not a declining trend – more like bumping along under the rolling average – but definitely not a gathering rise.

Crisis? What crisis? Epidemic? Schmepidemic.

Taking a longer perspective, AIHW data show that current per capita suicide rates are lower than at any time over the past century except for the decade starting from the beginning of World War 2. A decade earlier, in the Great Depression, the highest suicide rates were recorded. In 1930 the rate of male suicide touched 30 per 100,000, almost double current levels. Female suicide rates were then around the same as now, at five per 100,000. The next peak was in the mid-1960s, when male and female rates were almost double current levels.

In olden times the levels of suicide by indigenous people were masked by the fact that they didn’t register on so many ways of counting. Nowadays that is fixed, and AIHW data shows that current levels of indigenous suicide are about double that of the overall population (about 30 per 100,000 for males and ten per 100,000 for females). That chimes with AIHW analysis which found that suicide rates in very remote areas ranged from 1.8 times that of cities in 2009–10 to 3.5 times in 2004–05.

That’s where the epidemic is.

Simon Grose is Editor of Canberra IQ (