Year long inquiry finds 657% rise in self-harm and suicidal behaviour.
Year long inquiry finds 657% rise in self-harm and suicidal behaviour.

Suicide rate steady, self-harm sky rockets for youth

A CHILD dies by their own hand each and every week in Australia.

It is not a crisis, but a problem that bubbles at the back of the minds of children and teenagers, their families and those who try to help, in the biggest and smallest communities of the nation.

And evidence gathered in a year-long examination of the issue by National Children's Commissioner Megan Mitchell shows the isolation, stigma and complex, intimate relationships in regional and rural Australia could be a key factor in a suicide rate that is, in some cases, twice that of capital cities.

"The first time I cut myself was around aged 10. I drank bleach and used a cutter to cut my wrist and arm," one young person told the inquiry.

Another spoke of how, since she was 14 years old, she hid the evidence of self-harm with "long sleeves and/or cosmetics".

"Even though I'm now open about the fact I have a mental illness amongst friends, only my husband and clinicians are aware of my history of self-harm. It's the most shameful part of my experience with mental illness."

These are just two of the more than 130 personal stories and expert submissions to Ms Mitchell's inquiry, which reported its findings to parliament in Canberra this October.

Using previously unavailable statistics and crucial data from the Kids Helpline, Ms Mitchell said the inquiry's key finding was that "we know much less than we should" about youth suicide and child self-harm.

It is a situation, she says, that is preventing the nation from providing "the right support to children and young people at the right time" to stop some of the nation's most vulnerable children and teenagers from hurting themselves and ending their lives.

The figures show a largely plateaued suicide rate, Ms Mitchell says, at 324 deaths of young people aged 15 to 24 years old in 2012 - the leading cause of death of young Australians - the ABS reports.

But as the suicides have levelled off in recent times, the rate of self-harm among young Australians has rocketed - with Ms Mitchell citing data showing a 657% rise in self-harm and suicidal behaviour as children grow from being 12-13 years old to 14-15 years old.

"It's definitely trending upwards, and while we know of thousands of cases, there are many, many thousands of cases of self-harm we don't know about," Ms Mitchell said.

Among the factors increasing the risk of self-harm and suicide are known social problems: domestic violence, substance abuse within the family, mental illness, poverty, knowing others who have self-harmed, school, work and social pressures, bullying and body image concerns.

Ms Mitchell said the top "co-presenting concerns" of young people who were self-harming or considering suicide was emotional distress - children who felt "overwhelmed, angry and lonely" - and who did not have the skills to deal with the "intense feelings you have as an adolescent".

While the inquiry was not able to get definitive data on regional and remote child self-harm and suicide, Ms Mitchell went sent numerous submissions highlighting the problem outside the capitals.

"We really need as adults to be aware of how these things can come about.

"The fact we're not making in-roads to the suicide rate and the fact that younger and younger kids are taking their lives or self-harming - it's extremely worrying, the whole of area of self-harm without intending to take life."

Calling for a national research agenda to better understand the problem - before it can be fully addressed, it must be understood - Ms Mitchell has also recommended better recording of child deaths by coroners and police.

Her report also "suggested" staff at first-response places, like hospital emergency departments, be better trained to be able to deal with the rarer cases where children and their parents present with self-harm.

But addressing it, Ms Mitchell says, begins at home and in the schoolyard, saying its "absolutely vital" parents, friends, teachers and coaches are stay connected to the children, "make sure they feel respected" and "let them know they won't be judged".

"Sometimes an adolescent shrug can be just a feature of their age, but other times there might be something more going on," she said.

"We need to see the warning signs, whether they are starting to withdraw or not engaging in conversations, it's just really important to keep checking in."

And as families leave or prepare for the summer holidays, and the structure of life around school dissipates, Ms Mitchell reminds all families how important it is to stay connected at Christmas time.

"It could be a tough time if you've had a death in the family, or the child is in a separated family, and it's stressful anyway - add to that the consumption of alcohol and children are often the ones caught in the middle," she said.

"Holidays are a time when you really need to be attuned to young people - there are less protective factors around, and everyone should be talking to their children even more."If you or someone you know might need help, please call one of the following numbers: Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800; Lifeline on 13 11 14; headspace on 1800 650 890; beyondblue on 1300 22 4636; Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.