ANU research to help young Australians at risk of suicide

17 June 2019

Australian youth at risk of suicide could soon receive better mental health care thanks to a novel research project from The Australian National University (ANU).

In a first of its kind study, ANU researchers will investigate the number of Australians aged 12 to 24 years presenting to hospital emergency departments with self-inflicted injuries and describe their subsequent mental health care pathways.

The researchers will also quantify the potential cost and cost effectiveness of follow-up mental health care.

The research is part of a new project led by the Australian Suicide Prevention Foundation and funded by Health Minister Greg Hunt. 

Lead researcher Dr Wei Du said suicide is the leading cause of death among Australian youth aged 12 to 24, with some forms of self-harm strongly associated with an elevated risk of suicide.

"There has been a big increase in young people presenting to emergency departments with serious self-harm," Dr Du said.

"For example, here in the ACT, one-fifth of young people have presented to an emergency department three times because of serious self-harm.

"Australian evidence suggests that up to 30 per cent of patients are leaving without any formal mental health care arrangements once they are discharged from hospital.

"While this behaviour is a clear warning sign of serious mental distress, the pressures of an emergency department mean that it is difficult to meet the mental health care needs of these young people.  

"Our project is the first of its kind to comprehensively quantify the relationship between different paths of mental health care and repeated emergency department presentation using big data, complemented by an in-depth qualitative investigation of clinical evidence in relation to care path selection".

"It will better track incidents of self-harm so that mental health care initiatives are better available at emergency departments and when patients leave hospital."

Dr Du said the new analysis will be vital to community healthcare providers, mental health workers, emergency departments and caregivers.       

"We already know the terrible burden of self-harm in youth and the devastating consequences of ignorance or inappropriate care.

"There is clear need to improve follow-up community based mental health care and reduce repetition of self-harm or suicide attempts after a young person's first presentation at an emergency department.

"Our project will help do this, as well as identify groups most vulnerable to repeated emergency department presentations, and better inform the care these vulnerable young people need."   

Dr Du is based in the ANU Research School of Population Health (RSPH). He will undertake the project in conjunction with Professor Emily Lancsar, Dr Jane Desborough and Dr Siobhan Bourke from the ANU Department of Health Services Research and Policy, within RSPH.