Thirty-seven people have committed suicide over the past six years during or after treatment by the territory’s mental health system, and another 18 deaths are being investigated by the coroner.
Documents released to The Canberra Times under Freedom of Information have given the first snapshot of how many people on Mental Health ACT’s client database have taken their lives since 2006. Two of those people were on a psychiatric treatment order, or forced mental health intervention, when they committed suicide.
While some people took their lives at a Mental Health ACT facility or during patient leave, the majority of suicides were not carried out by inpatients.
The figures reveal the majority of cases involved men, and those aged between 30 and 40 were the most likely to commit suicide. Of particular concern were young people between 15 and 25 and older people in their 90s who killed themselves, a clinician said.
The highest number of suicides in one year among those who had received mental health treatment was in 2007, when 11 died. That would represent just over a third of the territory’s total suicides that year, according to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures.
The latest available statistics for suicides in the ACT was 2010, when 35 people took their own lives. The territory has the third lowest rate of suicide in the country and sits just below the national average of 10.4 suicides per 100,000 people.
SupportLink chief executive Tony Campbell, whose team ‘‘sits in the room of the family at nearly every suicide’’, said some people were being let down by ACT’s mental health system. There would be value in a community-wide review into mental health services, both government and community, in the ACT.
‘‘There is a system. Is the system fantastic? No. Could it work better? Yes,’’ Mr Campbell said.
‘‘The best thing we can do is to make sure the systems are working in tandem with one another.
‘‘We’ve got a mental health system that probably could work with the community sector better.
‘‘We’ve got a frustration where people are put into emergency departments after an attempted suicide and find themselves back out on the street the same day.’’ Clinical Services director and chief psychiatrist Peter Norrie said former patients often came back several years later, grateful for the support that had been given.
But Lifeline Canberra chief executive Mike Zissler said many families in the community felt they were not being treated well by the system because it was ‘‘overstretched’’ and ‘‘not well funded’’.
According to the ACT Health Directorate, funding has increased over the past decade from $27.4 million to $82.6 million in 2010-11. Of that most recent figure, about $10 million was spent on community sector mental health services.
Mr Zissler said that the funding ratio was too much in favour of acute mental health care – the buildings and professional staff in the hospital setting. He would like to see more money invested into the community sector and into families caring for the mentally ill.
‘‘At times people just get lost in the system,’’ Mr Zissler said, adding community resilience needed to be built.
Mental Health ACT has a ‘‘no wrong door’’ policy, which aims to ensure people aren’t turned away when seeking help.
The ACT Mental Health Consumer Network said there were a lot of mental health support services in the ACT. But the network’s executive officer Dalane Drexler said people still ‘‘fell through the cracks’’ because ‘‘they don’t quite qualify for this service, they don’t quite qualify for that service. People say I can’t get support that I need when I need it,’’ she said. ‘‘Ideally down the track they will get focused on the community side of things and have people properly supported in the community.’’
Lifeline Canberra has been calling for a suicide review committee in the ACT because it says: ‘‘We don’t know enough about them, we don’t respond to them, we don’t really react to them’’.
Dr Norrie said the total number of suicides by people linked to Mental Health ACT at some point in their lives was small when compared to the number of people on the system’s clinical records and followed a downward trend. He also said the numbers were hard to quantify because of the varying degree of contact they had with patients.
‘‘The majority of suicides, as sad as this is, occur without any of us knowing,’’ Dr Norrie said. ‘‘There are some people who suicide without pre-warning, no diagnosis, no contact with any services, not just with Mental Health, and no contact with their GP or Lifeline.
‘‘For me as a clinician [the data obtained under FoI request] reaffirms that it is a very challenging area.
‘‘We would be working hard to do our very best to make sure that figure is as small as possible.’’
If the Canberra Times story about suicide raises issues for you or your family and friends contact Lifeline on 13 11 44 or the Crisis Assessment Treatment Team on 1800 629 354.