The time has come to re-evaluate the way we approach suicide awareness and prevention! This is the challenge issued in a recent paper delivered by the Australian Institute of Male Health Studies and Western Sydney University. Renowned advocates for Men’s Health Dr John Ashfield, Professor John Macdonald and Anthony Smith propose that a significant paradigm shift is needed in order to realise a more effective national suicide prevention strategy. They argue that a ‘situational approach’ is required, one that acknowledges the more predominant association of situational distress with suicide, as opposed to the current focus on mental illness. This is precisely what we advocate at RMHI.

None of us are immune to the feelings associated with being overwhelmed and challenged by specific events in our lives. These normal life ‘situations’ such as bereavement or relationship breakdown can impact greatly on our mental and emotional wellbeing. It is at these times, when we are able to draw on our innate resilience as human beings, and to see the best in others when we connect with them for support. The concern is that too often the distress we feel in certain situations aligns with symptoms that are often used to identify a mental illness such as depression. There is no doubt that depression can be a debilitating illness with associations for increased risk of suicide but it has gone from being a condition of relative obscurity to an apparent major social dilemma. The authors take this a step further and argue that ‘the current mental health narrative has been allowed to encircle, medicalise and redefine as pathological many of our common human experiences’ (Ashfield, Macdonald and Smith).

The paper’s central argument is that when it comes to suicide prevention most initiatives are preoccupied with the identification of mental illness. Instead, we need to be considering all forms of life stressors and the associated experience of distress which doesn’t necessarily embody a diagnosable mental illness but can result in suicidal behaviour. They argue that many suicides are connected to situational distress often involving issues such as unemployment, financial problems and conflict, the signs of which may be missed if we adhere to a purely mental illness agenda. We need to be looking at situational distress and how it influences the individual’s perspective.

As long as the suicide focus remains mostly on mental illness people will continue to view this problem as that of a professional’s domain. Whilst tertiary services are very important their focus is on people with high intensity mental health difficulties and the associated risk issues. At RMHI we strongly support the shift to a more situational approach to suicide awareness because it promotes development of initiatives that advocate capacity building in individuals and their communities, early intervention and a primary care focus, that is ordinary people looking out for each other.

Brenden and the Team

The Regional Men’s Health Initiative
delivered by Wheatbelt Men’s Health (Inc.)        
PO Box 768, Northam WA 6401            
Phone: 08 9690 2277                
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www.regionalmenshealth.com.au