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Why we should take a gendered approach to suicide prevention

It’s Women’s Heath Week. World Suicide Prevention Day on 10th September. RUOK? Day on the second Thursday of this month - also 10th September. Seems like the opportune time to write about Women and Suicide Prevention.

Why I think it’s important to bring a gendered lens to suicide prevention stems from my learning about smoking control in Australia. For almost half of the last century we saw concerted efforts to reduce smoking rates in Australia. The initial focus was very clearly directed at reducing smoking among men and it was successful. But, the same efforts were not forthcoming to control the uptake of smoking among women and by the early 1990’s in Australia 42% of young women aged 18-24 were regular smokers. If action were not taken the health consequences today would have been devastating.

The low rates of smoking we enjoy today are the result of highly focused efforts to build a multi-level, multi-pronged sustained approach to smoking control supported by legislation, education, fiscal imposts and environmental controls.

Coming from breast cancer into suicide prevention some years ago now I was surprised by two things… that three in four suicides were men and the total number of suicides in Australia were verging on the same numbers as breast cancer. But public awareness and action were incomparable.

At the time, looking at both raw numbers and the rates it made sense to focus on reducing suicides among men. Many of our leading organisations responded by taking a gendered approach and developing male specific suicide prevention programs.

However, I do not want to see the experience with smoking control repeated. Both numbers and rates of suicide among women are up. Over this last decade the increase in raw numbers has been greater than 40% and rates have increased by 14%. Comparatively, raw numbers for men increased 20% and rates are up 8%.

I am not suggesting we pull back from a focus on men but rather that we invest in research to understand why these increases for women have occurred and then develop gender appropriate programs for all people who are vulnerable to suicide.

The impact of suicide on our community is not well understood. Research by Professor Julie Cerel and colleagues demonstrated that for every suicide around 135 people are impacted. So, based on current Australian figures that means almost 8,000 people are devastated by suicide every week in Australia.

Suicide robs families of their loved ones, young people of their future, workplaces of their colleagues and communities of their most valuable asset – their people.

So, whether you are working in women’s health or suicide prevention it is time to join forces and focus on understanding and reducing suicides among women in Australia.

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