National mental health policy 2008

2.3 Preventing mental health problems and mental illness, and reducing suicide risk

Page last updated: 2009

The proportion of Australians with mental health problems, mental illness and at risk of suicide will be reduced.
There are multiple risk factors for mental health problems and mental illness. Some risk factors may act as immediate precursors to mental health problems and mental illness. These include bereavement, relationship breakdown, removal from family and social supports, being in a carer role, unemployment and other major life events. Others are longer term and include biological predisposition and adverse childhood events, including deprivation and abuse. Some risk factors are linked to the individual, such as drug and alcohol use and physical health problems; others occur at a community level and include social exclusion, discrimination and bullying. Certain life stages render individuals particularly vulnerable (e.g. childhood, adolescence and old age). Some population groups, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and people who are homeless, unemployed, newly-arrived or refugees, are recognised as being at heightened risk and should therefore receive particular attention.

Mental health problems and mental illness, in turn, are risk factors for suicide. Other clinical indicators, such as a previous history of self-harm, are also recognised as being associated with a heightened risk of suicide. The risk factors for suicide are complex, and the interactions between them are poorly understood. An array of social factors such as poverty and recent stressful life events may also elevate the risk of suicide, particularly when combined with underlying vulnerabilities. Certain population groups are recognised as being at particularly high risk, including young males, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people living in rural areas and prisoners.

There are multiple protective factors that moderate the effect of risk factors and minimise the likelihood that individuals will experience mental health problems, mental illness or engage in suicidal behaviour. Like risk factors, protective factors can be short term or long term, rest with the individual or their community, and vary across the lifespan. They can include factors like robust self esteem, emotional resilience and strong social networks.

Prevention involves understanding and minimising factors which heighten risk and enhancing factors which improve resistance to mental health problems, mental illness and suicide. Universal prevention efforts target whole communities, with the aim of promoting resilience in individuals or positively impacting on some aspect of the social environment. Selective interventions target people who are not yet displaying mental health problems or mental illness or engaging in suicidal behaviours, but who exhibit risk factors that predispose them to do so in the future.

To change risk and protective factors at individual and community levels requires coordinated, sustained efforts across multiple sectors. For example, the education sector might join with the mental health sector to deliver resilience programs in primary and secondary schools.