National study shows youth suicide prevention requires localised approach

  • Nationwide modelling identifies Australian states and regions with highest estimated prevalence of youth self-harm.
  • Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia were the states and territories with highest prevalence.
  • Significant self-harm clusters identified in most states and territories, particularly in regional and remote areas.
  • Key risk factors for youth self-harm were mental illness, parental unemployment, insecure housing, and having Australian-born parents.
  • Overseas-born parents identified as unexpected protective factor.

23 November 2022

An Australian-first study has mapped the prevalence of youth self-harm across the country, identifying states and regions that need to be prioritised for self-harm and suicide prevention funding and support.

The Australian Youth Self-Harm Atlas, funded by the National Suicide Prevention Research Fund, which is managed by Suicide Prevention Australia, is the first Australia-wide study to investigate how experiences of youth self-harm and suicidality vary across different regions.

The study, led by QIMR Berghofer researcher Dr Emily Hielscher, shows some areas are more vulnerable than others, evidence that a highly localised approach is needed to tackle youth suicide.

“We found that the Northern Territory, Western Australia, and South Australia had the highest estimated prevalence of youth self-harm across all states and territories, indicating their communities are particularly vulnerable. They should be the highest priority for funding, support, and research,” Dr Hielscher said.

“Suicide is the leading cause of death in Australian young people, but the research shows that each community is affected differently. We saw an urgent need to investigate regional variability in the prevalence and experience of youth self-harm and suicidality across the country.”

Significant youth self-harm clusters identified

The study identified significant clusters of youth self-harm in each state and territory including regional parts of Western Australia, Northern Territory, and North and Central Queensland, as well as eastern Melbourne, outer south-eastern Adelaide, and outer Western Sydney.

“The prevalence of youth self-harm and suicidality was generally higher in regional and remote areas, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities disproportionately affected,” Dr Hielscher said.

The researchers also spoke with young people with lived experience of self-harm or suicidal thoughts living in geographically diverse areas, via comprehensive focus groups.

“Their insights lined up with our quantitative nation-wide modelling, which identified mental illness, parental unemployment, insecure housing, and having Australian-born parents as key risk factors that influence self-harm behaviours. E-safety concerns and being victim to homophobia were also found to increase risk,” Dr Hielscher said.

The significance of some risk factors varied between metropolitan and regional areas, with financial barriers, transport limitations, and community stigma appearing to be greater challenges in regional Australia.

Dr Emily Hielscher

Young people also felt the effects of COVID-19 and climate change, with the pandemic and natural disasters such as bushfires in NSW and Queensland contributing to a general sense of hopelessness and uncertainty.

“Some young people drew direct connections between this sense of hopelessness about climate change and their willingness to live – and again, we saw that geographic variance where people in more regional and remote areas were more greatly impacted,” Dr Hielscher said.

“It can be harder for those in regional areas to participate in climate-related actions that can give them hope, like living sustainably or participating in activism, due to limited accessibility to such events in smaller regional towns.”

Overseas-born parents an unexpected protective factor

The researchers hope further study will shed light on the finding related to parents’ country of birth.

“We found something really interesting and a little unexpected in our analyses. Living in an area with many overseas-born parents markedly reduced the likelihood of a young person’s engagement in self-harm,” Dr Hielscher said.

“A couple of other studies have shown similar results and there are some theories as to why. It may be that the support that exists for young people living in communities with overseas-born parents is protective against self-harm. But more detailed research with culturally diverse groups is needed to better understand the potential protective qualities of having a parent who was born overseas, and whether it may carry broader lessons for youth self-harm and suicide prevention.”

Regionally tailored solutions needed

Dr Hielscher said the results highlighted the importance of regionally tailored approaches to youth self-harm and suicide prevention, which are responsive to local needs and address socio-economic and housing factors as well as mental health concerns.

“We can’t adopt a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach if we’re to reduce youth self-harm and suicide in Australia. This research shows that different regions have varying risk factors, challenges, and needs – and the support we’re offering young people must address that,” Dr Hielscher said.

Key recommendations from the study include making real-time localised data more readily available in identified self-harm clusters, as well as continuing to improve youth mental health, e-safety, and single parent employment, and addressing uniquely identified service barriers in metro versus regional areas via the local Primary Health Networks.

The research team hopes these recommendations are considered as part of proposed youth suicide prevention planning across Australia. Currently, Tasmania is the only state or territory in Australia to have developed a dedicated youth suicide prevention plan.

Suicide Prevention Australia CEO, Nieves Murray, commended the research.

“Research is fundamental to developing suicide prevention solutions that work and are informed by evidence. Suicide is complex and more research is needed to gather evidence on how best to address suicide risks in young people,” Ms Murray said.

More information on the Youth Self-Harm Atlas is available here.

If you need support, you can contact Lifeline (13 11 14), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467), Headspace or Beyond Blue.

Further information:

The Atlas study was funded by Suicide Prevention Australia, and carried out in collaboration with colleagues at Roses in the Ocean, The University of Western Australia, and Australian National University.

The project analysed Census data and nationally representative youth data, the Young Minds Matter survey, and conducted 14 focus groups to investigate the prevalence and key influences of youth self-harm across different geographic areas of Australia.

Focus group locations included Central Queensland, Brisbane North, Hunter New England and South Western Sydney.


Jodie Stephens
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M +614 2717 9216