Australia steps up its war against suicides

The Salvation Army is aiming to help friends and relatives identify the signs that a loved one is considering killing themselves.

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SYDNEY // The Salvation Army charitable organisation is opening up a new front against suicide with a campaign aimed at helping friends and relatives identify the signs that a loved one is considering killing themselves. In what campaigners call a "national tragedy", 1,800 Australians take their own lives each year, more than those killed in road accidents. "Eighty per cent of suicides can be prevented," said Alan Staines of the Salvation Army. "We have all got a part to play. We can all do something and can all learn the warning signs."

Education and awareness are the cornerstones of fresh efforts to tackle the tragedy of suicide. An online training course developed by the Salvation Army gives invaluable tips on how to recognise signs that someone may be suicidal. The individual might make jokes about death, start giving away possessions, become withdrawn or abuse alcohol and drugs, any or all of which can often be a coded cry for help.

"The ambivalence of suicide is that many want to live and die at the same time," Mr Staines said. "It gets to a stage where they just can't cope and feel that they're a failure and think that the easiest way out is to take their own life." World Health Organization figures show that suicide claims about one million lives globally each year, or one death every 40 seconds. In Australia most victims are men between 25 and 44.

Graeme Cowan, a former recruitment executive, attempted suicide on four separate occasions. "You get to that stage where you think you're doing your loved ones a favour," he said. "It is crazy thinking, but you really believe that you can see a future where you're just going to be a burden on everyone. You feel totally useless. "Most people that do attempt suicide don't really want to die, they just want to end the pain and the pain is overwhelming. It's both psychological pain as well as physical pain - just a blackness."

Mr Cowan, 50, has suffered five major bouts of depression. During one fraught period he underwent electroshock therapy and was prescribed a range of powerful medication. Much of the stress he endured was brought on by a highly demanding job, which forced him to hide his symptoms as he fought the depression that was corroding his mind and body. He has since written two books about his experiences and said he was lucky enough to emerge in one piece thanks in large part to the unwavering support of family and friends.

"Since I have recovered I am happier than probably I've ever been in my life," he said. "I think that there is a huge part of the Australian psyche, particularly for men, that they should be self-sufficient. Part of it is the Australian macho thing where they've got to sort it out themselves." Psychiatric disorders, particularly depression and substance abuse, are associated with more than 90 per cent of suicide cases, but there are other complicated reasons why people kill themselves, such as bereavement, redundancy and troubled relationships.

"It's a complex question as to why men take their lives," said Ian Webster, the chairman of the Australian Suicide Prevention Advisory Council. "People attribute it to the breakdown in marriages and relationships and they tend not to seek help in the same way as women may do; and alcohol is a very significant factor in suicide in this country. "The rates of attempted suicide are very high indeed and they are especially high in women. They're of the order of 20 to 50 times higher than the people who die by suicide."

The problems are acute in Australia's indigenous communities, which are bedevilled by hopelessness and poverty. Prof Webster said such self-destructive behaviour has only emerged relatively recently. "In Aboriginal society suicide was a rare phenomenon more than about three decades ago, but clearly Aboriginal people feel very disenfranchised and alienated. "Alcohol is an enormous problem and young people have virtually no futures at all in some of those communities. It's a sense of despair and it often occurs in clusters and that may well represent a protest by the younger people about their predicament against what's happening to them in general."

Despite the situation in Aboriginal communities, Australia's suicide rate has gradually fallen over the years. A decade ago the country recorded about 2,700 deaths and while that figure has dropped by one third, Australia's suicide rate is higher than other western countries, including the United Kingdom. "Australia was one of the first countries to introduce a national suicide prevention strategy," Prof Webster said. "The level of awareness of mental health problems has changed enormously in Australia."

Much of that success is because of grass-roots projects involving a host of charities, including the Salvation Army, which fund telephone counselling help lines and other support programmes. Experts have predicted that demand for these front line services will increase as more anxious Australians feel the effects of the global financial crisis.