Suicide: Facts and Myths

Suicide is a major public health problem in Australia. About 2300 Australians take their own lives each year. Suicide is costly to communities, both economically and socially.

Many more people harm themselves or attempt suicide. Admissions to hospital for intentional self injury are about 10 times as common as deaths due to suicide.

Up to 90% of people who die by suicide suffer from a diagnosable mental illness; 1 in 5 people will experience mental illness at some time in their life.

Groups most likely to suicide are young males, older men, Indigenous young men and rural residents. Women are more likely than men to attempt suicide and harm themselves. Every individual suicide causes significant distress for family, friends, and the broader community.

Risk Factors

Suicide is a complex problem with many factors contributing to increase risk. Mental illness (particularly depression) is the most important risk factor for suicide. When alcohol or drug misuse co-exists with mental illness, there is a greatly increased risk. Previous suicide attempts and poor response to treatment also indicate an elevated risk.

Many historical, cultural and physiological factors increase vulnerability, e.g. childhood abuse, family violence, homelessness, social isolation, gambling and other addictions, and experience of recent separation or less (loved one, job, money, status), anniversaries of significant loss or other events.

Protective Factors

Protective factors can help people develop the resilience to cope with stress and minimise risk of harm. These include:

  • Early identification and treatment of mental illness, with limited impairment
  • Presence of a significant, supportive other
  • Connectedness to family/friends/school/workplace/community
  • Responsibility for children (in some cases)
  • Effective problem-solving skills and overall personal resilience
  • Strong spiritual/religious belief system: sense of meaning and purpose in life
  • Hope.
Myth  Fact 
Suicidal people want to die. Most people are ambivalent and often fluctuate between wanting to live and wanting to die.
Asking about suicidal intent might encourage a suicide attempt. Not true. In fact your concern is likely to lower anxiety and reduce the likelihood.
People who talk about killing themselves rarely suicide. Most people who suicide have given some signal of their intention.
People who talk about suicide when under the influence of alcohol or drugs do not need to be taken seriously. Anyone who talks about suicide should be taken seriously. Alcohol and other drugs are involved in many suicides.
Suicidal people rarely seek medical help. Most suicidal people visit a GP in the days, weeks or months before they attempt suicide.
Suicidal attempts are just attention-seeking, ‘cries for help’ or ‘acting out’. Many people who attempt suicide go on later to complete it. The attempt may be a rehearsal. Also, a suicidal attempt may well be a cry for help from someone in profound distress, and this should not be ignored.
Suicide is an extremely rare occurrence. Suicide statistics are likely to be an under-estimate of the real number. There are also many more people who harm themselves or attempt suicide.
Suicide only affects certain sorts of people. Anyone may be vulnerable when confronting difficult circumstances or when experiencing feelings of depression or hopelessness.
When someone seems to be suicidal, someone else is probably taking care of it. It is not my business to interfere. Suicide is a community responsibility. Any concerned person can make a difference. Many distraught people do not have networks of support.
If someone confides suicidal intent for confidentiality reasons you are bound to honour this confidence. Ideally you should always seek permission from the client to inform or involve relevant others. However, you have a duty of care to ensure safety if you believe that the person presents an immediate risk to themselves or others.