The University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre has forecast a significant surge in suicides as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
New modelling by the centre has forecast an additional 1500 suicide-related deaths over the next five years, with a projected increase of up to 30% among young people aged 15-25.
This is in addition to the 3000 plus lives that are lost to suicide each year, a great percentage of which are male.
The centre’s co-director Professor Ian Hickie says these outcomes must be addressed before they become a reality, as the centre launches – YOUTHe – to curb the spike.
The $2.5 million, five-year National Health and Medical Research Commission (NHMRC) project is a collaboration between some of Australia’s top mental health researchers, including Orygen Youth Health
“Young people with existing mental health disorders are particularly vulnerable and those who have lost jobs, income or dropped out of education will be at much greater risk,” said Professor Hickie.
YOUTHe will focus on healthcare system reform and be informed by lived experience, with “dynamic modelling in real time and evaluation.”
“This research gives us an opportunity to ensure the health system is prepared for the consequences of the pandemic,” said Professor Hickie.
Associate Professor Jo-An Atkinson, head of the modelling team for YOUTHe, said research would respond to “looming national and regional threats to youth mental health and suicidal behaviours.”
“We will provide a blueprint for working collaboratively with governments, regional planners and clinicians, to flatten the curve in youth suicide by answering the critical questions of: ‘what combination of responses is required, at what time, in what sequence, targeted at whom, with what intensity and for how long?’” Professor Atkinson said.
In a joint statement released on May 7, the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Orygen and the Brain and Mind Centre, said there was an urgent need to prioritise mental health and suicide prevention as Australia slowly emerges from lockdown.
The statement says the suicide death rate is likely at this stage to overshadow the number of deaths in Australia directly attributable from to COVID-19 infection and could persist for up to five years.
“Young people comprise a large proportion of Australia’s casual workforce,” reads the statement. “Many students and younger people working in retail and hospitality have lost their income, and are unable to continue their studies. Some younger people may be experiencing cognitive and emotional development issues. These people are vulnerable to experiencing psychological, financial, and housing stress in the short and longer terms.
Among the actionable items listed in the statement, the group recommends adding a Mental Health Deputy Chief Medical Officer (CMO) to assist CMO Professor Brendan Murphy’s team.
“The national response to COVID-19 necessitates a clinically qualified recognised expert in mental health being at the fore of mental health communications, media, and advice,” it reads.
Suicide now kills more than 8 Australians a day, taking the lives of more than 6 men and 2 women a day on average. Male suicide continues to be a major social issue for men and boys of all ages in Australia and remains the biggest single killer of men aged 15-44.
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