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Australian Water Safety Council prioritises young males at risk of drowning

Researchers, policymakers, and water safety practitioners came together in Melbourne on October 25 to discuss new approaches to drowning and non-drowning-related injuries among young males aged 15-29.

According to data presented at the workshop by the Royal Life Saving Society - Australia, 20% of all drowning deaths in Australia between July 2002 and June 2023 were young males.

A total of 985 young males (15-29) drowned during this period, an average of 47 drowning deaths per year. 38% were born overseas and  46% were born in Australia. Of those born in Australia, 11% were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

Improving water safety skills at a population level is one way to reduce the risk of drowning. At present, almost half of all young males are unable to swim 50 meters in the ocean without touching the bottom.

The Australian Water Safety Council (AWSC), designers of the Australian Water Safety Strategy (AWSS), is committed to reducing drowning by 50% by 2030. In the last financial year, there were 281 drowning deaths in Australia and several hundred additional non-fatal drowning incidents.

While fatal drowning rates are declining, (a 26% drop over the past 20 years), young men continue to be over-represented in the statistics and are one of three focus populations in the AWSS 2030 strategy (the others being children 0-4 years and adults, 65+ years).

“We want to get more focus into the 2030 strategy,” said Justin Scarr, CEO of the Royal Life Saving Society and Convenor of the Australian Water Safety Council.

“Young men and drowning are one of those intractable issues. How do we reduce the number of young men drowning?”

The facts

According to the AWSS 2030:

  • Males drown at a rate of 4 times that of females
  • The top 3 locations were rivers and creeks (35%), beach (22%) and rocks (12%)
  • The top 3 activities were swimming and recreating (39%), boating (10%), and jumping in (9%)
  • 20% recorded a blood alcohol reading greater than 0.05% and 18% had used illegal drugs.
  • There are 7 times as many male drowning deaths as females in this age group.

The Young Male Drowning Prevention workshop in Melbourne heard from award-winning marketing educator Professor Kate Westberg, who spoke about the principles of engaging young males in the development of health promotion campaigns.

Professor Westberg focused on the need to segment the target audience and determine what drives specific behaviours.

“One-size-fits-all approaches don’t work,” she reiterated.

“Empower people to participate and think beyond the individual. What would be the value for the target segment in behaving differently? … What are they getting out of existing behaviours?”

Professor Westberg said young males should be included in all aspects of designing programs around water safety and that campaign messages should empower youth and appeal to their need for independence and rebellion. “Draw upon young male’s strengths rather than deficits,” she said.

“Make the message positive. Consider ethnic and age-specific approaches. Leverage peer influence and cultural ideas, for example, mateship. You may not look after yourself but look after your mates.”

She highlighted previous campaigns that effectively drew on the concept of mateship, such as the ‘Real Mates’ initiative developed by the Road Safety Advisory Council of Tasmania in partnership with Cricket Tasmania.

Australian Men’s Health Forum CEO Glen Poole also addressed the workshop, praising organisers for looking at “How we can give greater care, compassion and support for males and young men at risk of drowning.”

Poole said 50 men a day die from preventable causes, the top 5 killers of boys and young men being suicide, road accidents, accidental poisoning, drowning, and murder. “Death by accident or injury is mostly a men’s health issue,” he said.

Poole said the protective factors for drowning in young boys and men included “healthy risk-taking, supportive peers, responsible drinking, good water skills and confidence based on experience.”

With diverse parties attending the workshop, Poole said it made sense for national Water Safety initiatives to tie in with relevant Government strategies, such as the National Men’s Health Strategy, the National Injury Prevention Strategy, the National Alcohol Strategy, the National Sport Participation Strategy, Healthy Equity/Priority Population Strategies and State and Territory Strategies.

The Australian Water Safety Strategy 2030 presents a framework for reducing deaths by drowning and details activities that fall under each principle. In terms of focusing on young males, these action items include evaluating the effectiveness of existing water safety campaigns, programs and services and collaborating with education, injury prevention and health organisations, and community and recreation groups to build capacity and coordination.

The Strategy also states that education strategies should be expanded to include targeted digital and social media content, and that teachers should be supported to deliver life-saving education in secondary schools through appropriate training materials and opportunities.

As noted by the AWSS 2030, swimming is popular in Australia, however 40% of children do not achieve the National Benchmark of swimming 50m by the time they are 12 years old.

Populations at a higher risk of drowning are those from a lower socio-economic background, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, multi-cultural communities, and communities in regional and remote areas. Compared with major cities, the drowning rate in remote areas is 8 times higher and 13 times higher in very remote areas.

“This workshop was an opportunity to bring people together around a key focus area of the AWSS 2030,” said William Koon, National Manager of Drowning Prevention Strategy for Royal Life Saving Society - Australia, and the event’s organiser.

“We will continue to advance drowning prevention action focused on young males, building on key learnings from this workshop. This multisectoral group reaffirmed the importance of including young males in every part of that process, from designing effective behaviour change campaigns, to improving education efforts in schools, to enhancing our collaboration around this issue.”

Find out more

Download the Australian Water Safety Strategy 2023


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