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Suicide risk still left unspoken

05 May 2017

A study examining Australian suicide cases has highlighted a lack of communication between health care professionals and family members in the last month before the deaths.

Professor Brian Draper from the University of New South Wales led a team that carried out a ‘psychological autopsy’ study of 74 separate suicide cases in Queensland and New South Wales.

Most of the suicides involved men (62 per cent) with an average age of 54 years who had been in contact with health professionals and next-of-kin in the month before  their death.

“We found that family members were more likely to be aware of suicide warning signs than health care professionals,” Professor Draper said.

“Next-of-kin were significantly more likely to be aware of indirect suicide communication such as people changing their will; disposing of possessions; stock-piling pills and expressing feelings of hopelessness.

“However, in 25 per cent of the suicides there was no communication between the next-of-kin who had picked up on these suicide warning signs and the health professionals treating the person who died.

“Even in cases involving people with recent suicidal behavior, there was no communication between health professionals and next-of-kin in 62 per cent of cases.

“Mental health professionals failed to communicate with GPs in 40 per cent of the suicide cases that had involved individuals with a diagnosed mental illness.”

The study will be presented to the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) Annual Congress from 30 April to 4 May at the Adelaide Convention Centre.

Professor Draper said detailed interviews were carried out with relatives and health care professionals about their last contact with those who died by suicide, including any communication of their plans and suicide history.

“As thirty per cent of the people who died did not have a diagnosed mental illness, there’s a need for ongoing public mental health campaigns covering suicide warning signs, mental disorders and how to access help, stressing the importance of letting someone know if there are concerns,” he said.

“Clinicians should also try to include families as far as possible in their treatment of people with mental illness, especially depression, so more information can be shared about the person’s condition.

“Health professionals also need to communicate specifically about suicide risk with the family and friends of their patients – with their agreement as far as possible – to enable more accurate assessments and more inclusive treatment plans.

“Families need emergency contacts and more education to support them in dealing with a family member’s illness.”

The President of RANZCP, Professor Malcolm Hopwood said: “Over 3,000 people die by suicide in Australia and New Zealand every year and we have known for a long time many of them have indicated to family or professionals signs of their intent. We know it is critical to facilitate communication between professionals, patients and family members to reduce this human tragedy.” 

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The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists is a membership organisation that prepares medical specialists in the field of psychiatry, supports and enhances clinical practice, advocates for people affected by mental illness and advises governments on mental health care. For information about our work, our members or our history, visit