Kelly Vincent MLC - Speech to Parliament re Motion of the Hon. John Dawkins: Suicide Prevention - 06/04/2011
Kelly Vincent MLC | Legislative Council
6 April 2011
COMMUNITY AFFAIRS REFERENCE COMMITTEE REPORT
Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. J.S.L. Dawkins:
That this Council notes:
- the Senate’s Community Affairs References Committee Report titled 'The Hidden Toll: Suicide in Australia';
- that this Committee recommended a suicide prevention and awareness campaign for high risk groups, such as people in rural and remote areas;
- that this Committee also recommended that additional “gatekeeper” suicide awareness and risk assessment training be directed to people living in regional, rural and remote areas;
- that both the World Health Organisation and the International Association for Suicide Prevention have advocated a multi-faceted approach to suicide prevention, including recognising the important role that community based organisations can play in preventing suicide; and
- congratulates the Eyre Peninsula Local Government Association and the Eyre Peninsula Division of General Practice for seizing the initiative and providing funding to establish its own Community Response to Eliminating Suicide program on the Eyre Peninsula; and
- urges the Rann Government to place greater emphasis on community based organisations such as the Community Response to Eliminating Suicide program and acknowledges their importance, particularly in preventing suicide in regional South Australia
The Hon. K.L. VINCENT (20:43): I wish to speak in support of the Hon. Mr Dawkins' motion also. I am someone who is acutely aware of the lack of adequate campaigning around mental illness and suicide, both for personal and, obviously, professional reasons. As it is the job of this parliament to work toward addressing important issues which are core to the fabric and functioning of this society, it makes perfect sense to me to inquire into the best way to keep our people safe from suicide.
There are, of course, numerous factors which can lead a person to develop suicidal tendencies, whether they are lifestyle factors or physiological. Either way, I am greatly astounded and confused as to why mental illness, particularly as it is now largely recognised as a disability, is still such a taboo subject. As the Hon. Ms Franks pointed out, one in five Australians will experience some kind of mental illness or depression in their lifetime, yet we still continue to treat this as something foreign or untoward.
As the Hon. Mr Brokenshire said, in an ideal world, we would not have to deal with a motion such as this, but we do not live in an ideal world, so we need to address the issue. As a friend of mine once said to me, 'If you have a heart condition, you take your medication. You seek treatment from a doctor, and there is no shame in that. So, why is seeking treatment for mental illness so different?'—and why should it be?
As the old saying goes, 'The first step toward addressing a problem is admitting that we have one,' and, clearly, if we are losing six Australians per day to suicide, we have a problem. Just like we cannot treat a tumour by ignoring it, we cannot address mental illness by keeping it locked up and hidden away. Therefore, I support the Hon. Mr Dawkins' push for increased campaigning to increase acknowledgement and acceptance of the prevalence of mental illness and suicide in our community.
Of course, this is not going to happen quickly nor easily, particularly because it seems to me that mental illness is currently under fire, so to speak, from two sides: those who experience mental illness and are ashamed or fearful of it, and those have not experienced it yet and are judgemental and dismissive of it. Unless we address the issue from both these sides, campaigning is likely to be limited in effectiveness.
I think that there can be little denying that at least part of the shame which people may feel about their own mental illness might be related to the social environment in which a person lives. For this reason, I commend the Hon. Mr Dawkins for placing particular focus for this motion on the issue of suicide in regional areas. After watching several episodes of the ABC program Landline, which talked about the small regional community of Sheffield which lost at least 10 of its residents to suicide in only three years, I was reminded that mental illness really is more prevalent and more widespread than we perhaps like to believe. As one person interviewed in the program stated: 'It wasn't just young people, it was old people — people from all walks of life.'
Unfortunately, we may never know what caused these people to make the tragic decision they did in ending their lives. One can speculate and say that it could have been boredom arising out of living in regional areas with limited access to entertainment and leisure activities, limited access to employment opportunities, drought, etc. However, what really became clear to me while watching the Landline series was that, despite the close-knit nature of relationships residents of small towns like Sheffield experience, people in regional areas, particularly men, generally speaking do seem to be less likely than average to acknowledge and discuss their depression or suicidal thoughts.
As I said, mental illness is now largely regarded under the disability umbrella, so to speak, as being a part of that, and it is, of course, for that reason a big part of my work in this parliament. I see a high incidence of what we in the community and perhaps elsewhere refer to as 'dual disability', that is, a person perhaps with a physical or intellectual disability, for instance, who also experiences mental illness.
The isolation felt by people in regional areas is also no stranger to me in my work. My office often hears—too often, in fact—from parents and carers of children with disabilities for instance, particularly autism spectrum disorders, living in regional areas. More often than not, the special services which their child requires to live a happy life and to reach their full potential are simply not available in their area, leading to frustration and added pressure on the family, which can be greatly exacerbated when the family is forced to uproot their entire life and move to a city like Adelaide in search of support for their child, only to find that even the services available here are limited. This is a frustration and a pain that I imagine cannot be truly understood by people who are not living it themselves, which may lead the struggling person or family to become even further introverted and shut themselves out from the world around them.
This is why I, like the Hon. Mr Dawkins, acknowledge and commend the work of organisations like CORES, which aim to address mental illness and suicide by arming participants with the tools to talk about mental illness openly, free from judgement or fear of reprimand. By arming more people with this knowledge and by addressing the environmental and/or social contributors to suicide, such as a lack of support services, we can and must bring mental illness out of the dark ages. This is, after all, a long overdue debt which we as a society owe to those living with mental illness and to ourselves, as it is vital to our development as an open, humanitarian and equal society. With these few words, Mr President, I strongly commend the Hon. Mr Dawkins' motion to the house.
The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS (20:56): I commence by sincerely thanking the Hon. Tammy Franks, the Hon. Ian Hunter, the Hon. Robert Brokenshire, the Hon. Kelly Vincent and the Hon. Ann Bressington for their heartfelt and sincere contributions. I would also like to thank the other members of this house and, might I say, of the other house who have indicated their support not only for this motion but also for the work I have been doing in the suicide prevention area for a number of years.
When I first started raising these issues more than four years ago in my party room and in the parliament there were some who were uncomfortable with the subject. I think the Hon. Mr Brokenshire referred to the sort of community feeling that we have had for a long time—that it is better not to talk about suicide. I feel that resistance dropping away, and it drops away more and more when people actually have a personal experience or they know someone in that situation. I appreciate the support that I have had, and I hope that the government takes note of this motion if it is accepted tonight.
I will not be accepting the amendment, and in doing so I make no criticism of the Hon. Mr Hunter. The Hon. Mr Hunter is someone who I know has a very good knowledge of the issues around suicide and many other social matters in this state, so I do accept the sincerity of his contribution tonight. I only received the amendment from the minister's office at 10.30 this morning. That was 48 hours after I was advised by the government that there would be an amendment and three weeks after I called for a vote on this day. The fact that the government could only provide me with the wording today at 10.30 I think is pretty ordinary. I do not think that the amendment was provided to any other members of this house, other than myself.
I will make a few comments in relation to the government's response to my motion and its amendment. I think in the speech on behalf of the government the Hon. Mr Hunter referred to my focusing on the CORES program, and he came up with a number of other programs that are operating. I must say that there are many very good programs that deal with mental health and suicide prevention. Recently, I was in Mount Gambier with some people who are proponents of the ReachOut program, which is a very good program on the net for young people aged 14 to 25 with mental health issues. That is a very good program for those people.
I think both the Hon. Ms Vincent and the Hon. Ms Franks—and even the Hon. Ann Bressington, I must say—have raised particular sectors of our community that are very prone to suicide, and I really thank them for that. Having said that, the Hon. Mr Brokenshire obviously comes from a rural background and knows the pressures in the farming sector. So, I think all of the speakers tonight have actually brought a very valuable aspect to the debate.
My motion does not only talk about CORES: it talks about a greater emphasis on community-based organisations, such as CORES. So, I am certainly not specific, and I hope that the government realises that I was not totally specific about CORES. The amendment talks about a collaborative approach. When I read that I thought that if they actually look at the first five clauses of the motion, surely that indicates a collaborative approach. I then noted that in the speech on behalf of the government, the Hon. Mr Hunter actually highlighted the collaborative approach between the Eyre Peninsula Local Government Association and the Eyre Peninsula Division of General Practice in delivering the CORES program to Eyre Peninsula.
Last year, when I was in North Queensland, in sugarcane country, where the CORES program is working very well, they were actually astounded that a division of general practice, being the doctors of the region, would actually work with a group of people like CORES from all walks of life. I think it is a tribute to Eyre Peninsula that they have done that, but it is also a wonderful example of what is a collaborative approach.
The other thing I will always remember in the work I have done on this issue and in dealing with three ministers for mental health—and I might say two of them have promised a review, although I have not seen any results of those reviews at this point; we have had another review promised tonight—is that, in a meeting in a minister's office, a very senior health professional told me, 'You amateurs should keep out of it.' Now, I am an amateur. I am not a professional in mental health. I have not been to university and I have not studied in the area, but I have lived life and I have lived in communities where we see these issues all the time and we see people in need of support. We need to arm people in the community to be able to provide that support and to then point people in the direction of the professionals.
The CORES scheme started in the town of Sheffield, in Tasmania, as mentioned by the Hon. Kelly Vincent. When I went there about four years ago to look at the program, there were only two CORES programs running in the whole country, and both of them were in northern Tasmania. I am very pleased to say that there are now, I think, more than 10 in Tasmania. There are about 20 across the country, and that is a terrific achievement in a very short period of time, with very little government money and largely philanthropic and commercial sector money. One thing I am very pleased to report to this chamber is that in Tasmania now all medical students going through the University of Tasmania are required to do the CORES training, and that is a wonderful thing. It just brings the doctors a bit closer to the community and to those who are dealing with these issues in their locality.
I conclude by saying that only this week I have had two people come to me with varying experiences about severe mental illness and also about suicide. In fact, a staff member within this building came to me with the issue the Hon. Ann Bressington has put on the record tonight. To say it is unpleasant is a great understatement. To see the images I saw and to see on Facebook some of the very flippant reactions to a person's final moments really shocked me. I think my staff realised that I was a bit shocked by that because we were due to have a staff meeting and I was a bit lost for words after that. It does bring home very closely the need for more to be done in this area and more to be done without relying just on professionals.
The focus of this motion has been on rural and regional areas. However, the incident the Hon. Ann Bressington talked about was a suburban one. There are so many people in suburban Adelaide and other large urban areas who have the same issues. Some might say that they do not suffer from isolation. I do a lot of work in the northern suburbs and in my home town of Gawler and other places close to Adelaide, but these people still feel isolated. You can be isolated anywhere if you do not have people in touch with you. So, we should look at suburban areas as well.
The comments by Coroner Mark Johns on ABC radio were mentioned by the Hon. Mr Brokenshire. In my speech in moving this motion on 23 February this year I read out what Mr Johns said, and I would like to do that again as a very good statement in conclusion of this motion, as follows:
The road toll is subject of enormous scrutiny in the media, and so it should be. But the suicide rate in this state is probably double the road toll, and yet as a subject it is not given anything like the same attention...If the suicide toll in this state were reported in the same way as the road toll (and this may not be possible for a number of reasons), people might be inclined to consider their friends and loved ones and work colleagues in a different way: Has something changed in their behaviour lately that might indicate that they are so deeply unhappy that they might be thinking of self harm?
Finally, I wish to relate an experience I had in Gawler in the last year or so. I went to speak to a community group and largely I was asked to speak about what I do as a member of parliament, specifically an upper house member of parliament. In doing so, I talked about a couple of the issues and causes that I advanced as a member of parliament, and I started to speak about my work on suicide prevention in relation to CORES. About 30 seconds or a minute into my presentation, I saw a lady in the audience—and there were a lot of people in the audience whom I knew—whose husband had taken his life some 25 years earlier.
You know, you can briefly pause, and I thought, 'Should I continue here?' but I did. I continued, and I spoke about the work of CORES and suicide prevention and intervention generally. At the end of my speech, when we were having supper, a couple of good friends of mine in Gawler came up to me and said, 'Look, we were really worried that you spoke about that in front of this lady,' and I said, 'Yes, I thought about that, but I decided that we need to talk, and we need to go on.'
Very soon after that, the lady concerned came up to me and said, 'I wish you were around when my husband took his life. I wish you were around before, and I wish you were around after he took his life.' She was thrilled that I am doing this work and that others support me, because she has been through it. She said that if her husband had had some support outside the close family, outside a doctor or a bank manager or whatever; if he had had someone like that to talk to, he might still be alive today. That keeps me going, and I will keep going on this for as long as it takes to make sure that we get more community input into suicide prevention in this state. I commend the motion to the house.
Amendment negatived; motion carried.