ABC CANBERRA BREAKFAST
WEDNESDAY, 9 SEPTEMBER 2020
SUBJECTS: R U OK Day; Parliamentary Friends of Suicide Prevention.
LISH FEJER, HOST: Dr Andrew Leigh is the federal Member for Fenner, and Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Charities. He is also co-chair of The Parliamentary Friends of Suicide Prevention, which is the crux of all of this, in checking in ‘are you okay’. Good morning, Dr Leigh.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good morning, Lish. That was a beautiful summary of the issue that you gave earlier. It's a real challenge for our community right now, isn’t it?
FEJER: It really is, and it's only going to get more challenging as certain things are wound back, as the full extent of COVID-19 comes to the fore. What is the Parliamentary Friends of Suicide Prevention? What does this group do?
LEIGH: It's about raising the profile of the issue of suicide prevention and mental health in Australia, co-chaired with Julian Leeser, the federal Member for Berowra and a good mate of mine. He’s somebody who has been working for a long time on this issue, and he like me has had his life touched by the issue. I don't think people realise that suicide takes twice as many lives every year as the road toll. An average of eight Australians every day die by suicide, and it's a particular issue among LGBTI+ communities, rural communities, Indigenous communities. So we need to do more to bring that toll down.
FEJER: Eight a day.
LEIGH: It's extraordinary, isn’t it? 3000 a year. It's just a monumental toll, and we need to make sure that we're reaching out to people and building a sense of community. I mean, I think that mental health is so much about the people that you've got around you, and there is a potential out of this pandemic to build a stronger sense of community, which ultimately I think is going to be at the heart of reducing the suicide rate.
FEJER: Yet at the same time, we've lost so so much of that community by having to really hunker down. How do we do it in times of COVID? How do we make sure we really are making that connection? And I know when I talk about R U OK and just this one day, where it feels some people might say it to be tokenistic, but just the very act of asking can literally change a moment.
LEIGH:That’s it. You might not be able to knock on the door of an elderly relative, but you can certainly pick up the phone. And there's so many ways of using online technologies to connect rather than disconnect. You know, I love the fact that during the pandemic that we had the evolution of the Facebook page called The Kindness Pandemic, set up by Catherine Barrett, which was a brilliant showcase of all the ways in which people were helping their communities and also encouraged others to assist. An activity called Pub Choir turned into Couch Choir, crowdsourced singing of some beautiful songs put together by Astrid Jorgensen, showing that there are innovative ways of continuing to connect, even at a time of social distancing.
FEJER: Loneliness is a big thing that people are experiencing at this time, feeling that social isolation. How do we tackle this, whether it's at a parliamentary level, when something feels so very personal?
LEIGH: One in four Australians so they're lonely and have no one to speak to. We also need to make sure that that's a responsibility for all of us. Governments are good at many things, but perhaps they're not the best organisation to be helping people find friends. That's ultimately got to be a community building activity. Governments can help to spur organisations, whether they're men's sheds or local volunteer groups, but we also need to see that as responsibility in our own lives. And I love the way so many of the mutual aid groups just emerged spontaneously across Canberra when the pandemic hit - people sending out flyers saying ‘let me know if you if you need assistance’, and I think that can help break the spell of loneliness.
FEJER: My guest this morning on ABC Radio Canberra is Dr Andrew Leigh. We're talking about suicide prevention, and I guess just even bringing it up into conversation is hard, and hard for so many people. I think while we would like to think we are so woke with mental illness and tackling it and demystifying it and just bringing it into everyday conversation, it is still incredibly hard to ask that question. Family and friends who might have had to ask, or colleagues who might have had a concern but not been able to ask, it's tough. When you first joined parliament, you spoke on the issue in the House.
LEIGH: Yes, I talked about a lovely schoolmate of mine, Andrew McIntosh, who took his own life just shy of the age of 22. Beautiful guy, terrific sportsman - used to be able to beat me in absolutely every sport. But unbeknownst to us, he had the black dog inside him, and none of us really asked him properly ‘are you okay?’. I remember talking about him to Mike Zissler, the former CEO of Lifeline Canberra, and Mike told me something I'd never realised before, which is it's okay to use the ‘S word’. It's actually okay to say to somebody ‘are you contemplating suicide?’. The research shows that that's more likely to lead them onto a path where they get help than it is to push them down the wrong direction.
FEJER: And I wonder if that has changed over time, Dr Leigh, being able to mention the S word?
LEIGH: Totally. I think one of the big challenges there, Lish, is that we now increasingly see mental health problems much in the same way as we see physical health problems. So, we don't look at somebody as being morally inferior because they've got a broken leg, and similarly now we oughtn't be looking at people as somehow having moral problems because of the biochemistry of their brain predisposes them to depression. The drugs have gotten better, the counselling has gotten better. There's so much better assistance out there, that it's the obligation of the rest of us to plug people into those support systems.
FEJER: And support systems is what is needed and severely lacking, as well. Rohan in Evatt says ‘what is needed is more resources - currently, Medicare mental health plan only provides for 10 visits, which for adolescents are exhausted very quickly’.
LEIGH: Yes, absolutely. I'm certainly aware of that limit being hit and there's other support services around such as headspace, but for those highly professional services yes, I'm very aware that can run out and that's something that we need to be focusing more on.
FEJER: In the media today, there's lots of reports and parents of school kids of the region may have received notification of social media very – a very graphic social media video going around, that has caused a huge amount of alarm and people are asking parents to stop their kids using social media for a couple of days lest they see this content. How can we do more to avoid this sort of content just doing the rounds and keeps on popping up as well? It's very hard to manage.
LEIGH: Yes, you’re quite right - it's worth staying off TikTok for 24 hours-
FEJER: Not just TikTok, I understand. It’s now made its way onto other social media platforms.
LEIGH: Yes, that's true. But more generally, I think we've been very good in Australia in terms of suicide reporting. So I notice even now in the United States, there's a lot of suicide reports which talk about the method. Now for almost 20 years, Australian media have realised that the risk of a copycat suicide is much higher if the media talks about the method, and Australian media have been enormously responsible in that. That then ensures that people who are aware of these sorts of things see it as an opportunity to look for help, rather than to turn inwards. I think it's also just a reminder more broadly that there is a risk that too much technology can be bad for mental health. We've seen a rise over the course of last 10 or 15 years in adolescent mental health problems, which has coincided with the rise of smartphone devices and increased social media. These technologies can be fabulous for connecting - I talked about The Kindness Pandemic page before - but they can also be used for cyber bullying, and can accentuate mental health problems if we're not careful.
FEJER: Dr Andrew Leigh, thank you so much for joining us this morning.
LEIGH: Pleasure, Lish. Thank you.
FEJER: Dr Andrew Leigh, Member for Fenner and Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Charities. Just a reminder that Lifeline Australia is there, BeyondBlue. Lifeline is 13 11 14 and BeyondBlue 1300 224 636.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.