There are a range of interacting factors related to individual mental health, family and social circumstance which have been associated with an increased risk of suicide among young people.
Youth is defined by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare as the period from 12–24 years of age. This period includes the three main stages of adolescence—early, middle and late—during which physical, intellectual, emotional and social changes take place. There are nearly 4.0 million young people in Australia (2.0 million young men and 1.9 million young women), representing just under one-fifth of the total Australian population. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population has a relatively young age structure with over one-third (36%) aged under 15 years compared with 18% of non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
What we know about suicide amongst young people
Data provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics for 2016 show that more Australian young people aged between 15 and 24 years died by suicide than by any other cause, and there has been a small but gradual increase over the past ten years.
There are high rates of suicide in particular among young people with an experience of mental ill-health, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, LGBTI young people, young people living in rural and remote areas, young people in contact with statutory care systems and young people who have been exposed to the suicide of another. Suicides among young people more commonly occur as part of a cluster than suicides among adults.
Detailed youth suicide data information is available on this website and in the Orygen national policy report: Raising the bar for youth suicide prevention, and the ATSISPEP fact sheet Suicide prevention for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.
Suicide statistics in Australia and internationally are often hampered by inaccuracies and inconsistencies. This results in levels of under-reporting, which may distort youth suicide data. This may be due to a number of reasons, including the reporting of common causes of death for young people (such as single vehicle accidents and overdoses) as accidental deaths, and coronial findings being influenced by a coroner’s views on youth suicide or their desire to protect or reduce stigma for the family of the young person. Further information about issues with suicide data collection is available in the Orygen national policy report.
The causes of suicide are complex and multifaceted. It is important to acknowledge that a young person may never experience suicidal behaviours or thoughts. The presence of protective factors may reduce the risk of suicide.
Protective factors that can help to reduce youth suicidal behaviour, include:
- strong, positive relationships with parents and guardians, increasing feelings of being secure and supported in connections to other non-parental adults
- close and continuing relationships with caring friends
- academic achievement
- school safety
- a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves, such as community, culture, religion, or a sports team
- neighbourhood safety
- awareness of and access to local health services.
Factors that may increase risk of suicide for young people include:
- onset of mental ill-health can occur during youth
- developmental changes in the brain that can compromise cognitive and emotional functioning
- drug and alcohol use
- social determinants such as criminality, family dysfunction, poor educational outcomes and socioeconomic disadvantage
- increasing pressures from rapid social, technological and economic changes.
For further details about the complex risk factors specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and LGBTI young people, please visit the Risk factors, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, or LGBTI people pages.
Government responses to youth suicide in Australia
Most national and state strategies identify particular priority populations who should be the focus of suicide prevention activities, including young people. Further information about these responses can be found in Policies.
It is important that the diversity of young people and communities be acknowledged. There is no single community of young people; there are many youth communities and each group has distinct needs. Consideration should also be given to other identity-driven needs and roles a young person may have, which may overlap with other communities including: