Poverty helps feed despair

28th August 1998 at 01:00

More than 5,000 young Australians have killed themselves in the past 10 years - and another 250,000 may have tried. Few families and few schools remain unaffected by an apparent epidemic of self-destruction.

United Nations data indicate that of the 14 major industrialised countries, Australia has one of the highest death rates in the 15 to 24 age group. At more than 16 per 100,000, the suicide rate in that group is higher than in Norway, the United States and Sweden - and more than double the rate in Japan. Young males commit suicide at about seven times the rate of females.

The former federal Labor government was so concerned that it allocated $13 million (Pounds 4.8 million) over four years to tackle youth suicide. The Victoria state government set up a taskforce last year to look at the issue.

Pierre Baume, director of the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention at Griffith University in Brisbane, says suicide is the product of three fundamentals: vulnerability, self-destructive responses to a stressful situation, and the "lethality" of the behavioural responses. "There are many unanswered questions and a multitude of conflicting theories concerning the roles played by mental illness and environmental influences, the existence and nature of predisposing factors, and the parallel issues of proper and effective prevention," Professor Baume says.

Sydney psychiatrist Jean Lennane believes the decline in formal religion, in the ideals of public service and helping others, and the "greed is good" philosophy, have contributed to a sense of hopelessness among the young. "Economic rationalism has taken over, the gap between rich and poor has widened and we now have 14 per cent of all children - 56 per cent of those of single mothers - living with inadequate incomes," Dr Lennane says.

Teachers need to be better informed about teenage suicide. A survey in the state of Victoria showed more than half the state's teachers and 40 per cent of GPs failed to recognise the role they could play in preventing suicide.

A report of the Victorian taskforce argues that schools are well placed to assist students in developing self-esteem and self-confidence.

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