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Sane Australia: suicide is not a selfish act

24 Jul 2014

A study of Australians who have attempted suicide has found many made the attempt feeling they were ‘a burden’ and believed their family and friends would be ‘better off’ without them.

The research, by national mental health charity SANE Australia and the University of New England, found that a common feeling among people at the time of the attempt was of hopelessness and that their ‘mental pain’ would never end.

‘We interviewed 31 people from across Australia – from both city and regional areas – who had made an attempt on their life, and asked them to tell us about their experience, what support was available to them, whether they had talked with family and friends about the attempt and  also what helped or hindered recovery,’ explains SANE Australia’s Suicide Prevention Manager, Sarah Coker.

‘This type of research is lacking in Australia,’ Ms Coker says. ‘Many studies have focused on prevention or clinical and expert opinion, neglecting the personal and lived experience of people who have survived a suicide attempt.’

‘Given that suicidal ideation and prior suicide attempts are common predictors of increased risk, it is important to understand the experiences of people who have attempted suicide and what factors may help the recovery process,’ explains Associate Professor Myfanwy Maple, from the University of New England’s School of Health.

The majority of the study’s participants (87%) reported having been diagnosed with at least one mental illness. Fifteen people reported one or more suicide attempts and 11 reported multiple suicide attempts across the lifespan.

Triggers for the attempt included symptoms of mental illness, a lack of professional support, being bereaved by suicide, and drug and alcohol use.

Several participants reported that at the time of their attempt they had ‘an intense emotional pain’ that they wanted to stop. Others felt they were ‘trapped, with no way out’ or ‘worthless’.

‘Judgemental attitudes and stigma were also commonly mentioned, with several people citing a ‘need to end the suffering’ that they were causing others. In a way their suicide attempt was not a selfish act, but rather a distorted belief that by ending their life, the person would improve the situation for those they cared about,’ Ms Coker says.

The study found that access to effective treatment and developing a trusted relationship with a health professional, such as a psychiatrist, is crucial in helping people recover. Support and understanding from family and friends and learning ways to cope, is also very important.

‘People who have survived a suicide attempt are extremely vulnerable and unfortunately they can encounter negative, dismissive or discriminating attitudes, which can make them feel they are not deserving of help.

‘The less judgemental we are about people who attempt suicide the more likely that people who are feeling suicidal will seek help,’ says SANE’s Suicide Prevention Manager.

Case study

Terry * lives in a regional city in NSW. He has attempted suicide twice. On both occasions he described himself as ‘mentally unwell’. After his first attempt, Terry was admitted to the emergency department of a large regional hospital. He saw a psychiatrist for the purpose of discharge only and was giving no referral or information about follow-up. At the time Terry said he had severe depression and was working in a ‘very difficult job, highly paid, but with very difficult staff and clients.’ He says he sought support from his manager but was not offered any help.

Terry’s second suicide attempt was around the time he went to detox for drug and alcohol addiction. At no time during his treatment were his mental health problems addressed. Terry has never spoken about his struggles with his family. He says he took part in the research because he ‘hopes it might help others’. These days Terry says he has excellent support from his psychiatrist who ‘made me a lot stronger and more stable.’ ‘With the help of my psychiatrist I’m working this out’, he adds.

* not his real name

To seek help please contact:

•  Lifeline
•  Suicide Call Back Service 
•  SANE Australia Helpline 1800 18 SANE (7263) or