Commonwealth response to 'The hidden toll: suicide in Australia'

2. Suicide reporting and statistics

Page last updated: 2010

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is the independent statutory authority responsible for the routine collation of data on suicide and other causes of death. The ABS adheres to strict coding rules for all data and no external parties are privy to any of the data or deliberations prior to public release of data through the annual publication Cause of Death, Australia.

The Australian Government recognised in 2008 the need to work with state and territory coroners to improve the timeliness and accuracy of suicide data and continues to support data improvements by the ABS through membership of the Mortality Statistics Advisory Group and other forums. The Commonwealth is also an active member of the National Committee for Standardised Reporting of Suicide.

The Senate Committee raised concerns in its report about the accuracy of suicide reporting in Australia and outlined the factors that may impede accurate identification and recording of possible suicides noting the consequences of any under-reporting on understanding risk factors and providing services to those at risk. This Response notes the many inter-related factors that contribute to possible under-reporting and outlines in this Chapter the ongoing Commonwealth activity to improve reporting quality and mechanisms, in particular through the work of the ABS.

Recommendation 2
Recommendation 3
Recommendation 4
Recommendation 5
Recommendation 6
Recommendation 7
Recommendation 21
Recommendation 28

Recommendation 2

3.3 The Committee recommends that Commonwealth, State and Territory governments, in consultation with the National Committee for Standardised Reporting on Suicide, implement reforms to improve the accuracy of suicide statistics.

Response

The Australian Government supports this recommendation, noting recent improvements in data collection, and is working with the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and state and territory governments to achieve this objective.

Recommendation 3

3.63 The Committee recommends that the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, in consultation with the National Committee for Standardised Reporting on Suicide, standardise coronial legislation and practices to improve the accurate reporting of suicide.Top of page

Response

The Australian Government supports this recommendation in principle, noting that states and territories have varied legislation relating to the reporting of deaths, coronial processes and rulings and that the reporting of suicides is secondary to these judicial processes.

The Commonwealth recognises that the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (SCAG) would be an appropriate means for pursuing national coronial legislation at this time.

Recommendation 4

3.65 The Committee recommends all Australian Governments implement a standardised national police form for the collection of information regarding a death reported to a coroner.

Response

The Australian Government supports this recommendation, noting that most jurisdictions have introduced, or are in the process of introducing, police forms which contain the standardised items of the national police form. Support is being given by the National Coroners Information System staff to facilitate this process.

Recommendation 5

3.66 The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth, State and Territory governments enable timely distribution of suicide data from coroners' offices regarding suicides to allow early notification of emerging suicide clusters to public health authorities and community organisations.

Response

The Australian Government supports the dissemination of information within legislative constraints and as deemed fit by State and Territory Coroners and will work with States and Territories through the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General or other appropriate forum.

Recommendation 6

3.67 The Committee recommends that State and Territory governments provide additional resources and training to staff in coronial offices to assist in the accurate and timely recording of mortality data.

Response

The Australian Government supports this recommendation in principle, noting such investment decisions would be a matter for state and territory governments.

The Commonwealth supports initiatives and investments to improve the completion of coronial cases and timeliness of data entry into the National Coroners Information System, such that the most complete set of data is available to the Australian Bureau of Statistics for processing for the annual Causes of Death, Australia publication.

Recommendation 7

3.69 The Committee recommends the National Committee for Standardisation of Reporting on Suicide liaise with peak insurance and financial associations, such as the Insurance Council of Australia, regarding exclusionary conditions in contracts which may deter the reporting of suicides.Top of page

Response

The Australian Government notes this recommendation and will raise it with states and territories and through its participation in the National Committee for Standardisation of Reporting on Suicide.

In the majority of life insurance products 'suicide' as a cause of death has a 12–36 month exclusion period. It has been identified that, in a number of coronial cases, there has been reluctance to code deaths as 'suicide' because of the potential impact on those bereaved by suicide, including the fear of stigma and in relation to life insurance policies. The Government recognises this can be a difficult decision for coronial staff, particularly in smaller communities.

Recommendation 21

5.101 The Committee recommends that national figures on suicide should be released to the Australian public, at a minimum, biannually, in an effort to raise community awareness about suicide, and should be provided together with information about available services and support.

Response

The Australian Government supports this recommendation in part.

The Government supports the continuation of annual reporting of national suicide data, noting that there are extensive and approved processes, including strict coding practices cleared by the World Health Organization for coding of all deaths and specific processes in relation to suicide deaths, which are undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics for the publication of the yearly Causes of Death, Australia publication.

Poor data quality is largely due to the high proportion of open coronial cases at the time of cut-off for publication and less than optimal data entry by some jurisdictions. The incompleteness of available data would be considerably greater if reporting was undertaken on a biannual basis, and it would further compound issues of inaccuracy of reported data. As such, the Government does not support biannual reporting at this stage.

As part of the Mental health: Taking Action to Tackle Suicide package, the Australian Government is providing $9 million over three years to make sure its investments deliver better outcomes through a new National Report Card on mental health and suicide prevention. The Commonwealth will ensure the launch of the Report Card incorporates information in relation to support services.

Recommendation 28

6.141 The Committee recommends that the Australian Bureau of Statistics and other public agencies which collect health data record and track completed suicides and attempted suicides of those under 15 years of age.

Response

The Australian Government notes this recommendation and has referred it to the ABS.

The ABS notes in its Causes of Death6 publication that:

"...Suicide deaths in children are an extremely sensitive issue for families and coroners. The number of child Suicides registered each year is low in relative terms and is likely to be underestimated. For that reason this publication does not include detailed information about Suicides for children aged under 15 years in the commentary or data cubes. There was an average of 10.1 Suicide deaths per year of children under 15 years".

Footnotes

6 ABS, 3303.0, Causes of Death, Australia, 2008 Explanatory note