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The deadly 'women's problem' that is often ignored.

Trigger warning: This post deals with suicide and self-harm.

“She said my friend was ‘attention seeking’; she was not, she had a clear plan and had written a note.”

“It pained me to hear people say she only did it to get attention.She didn’t do it for the attention. She didn’t do it to be cool. She did it because she was in pain.”

“The way strangers talk about people like me [includes phrases like] ‘It’s just a rebellious phase’.”

These are real stories, shared on a candid online thread addressing women’s experiences with suicidal behaviour.

Four out of five people who die from suicide are men. But don’t let that statistic fool you: Suicide is far from being a “men’s issue”.

Across Australia, teenage girls and women across plan, attempt, think about or become preoccupied with suicide (a phenomenon known as ‘suicidal ideation’) every year at higher rates than men. Frighteningly, there’s been a huge spike in the number of women who end up in hospital because of severe self-harm over the past 15 years.

But despite those confronting statistics, women are often overlooked in suicide prevention research and programs.

Women have higher rates of “suicidal behaviour” like ideation, planning and suicide attempts than men – but it’s a topic rarely discussed.

That’s a fact that needs to change, according to a newly-launched report.

. Suicide Prevention Australia CEO Sue Murray, who launched the  Suicide and Suicidal Behaviour in Women – Issues and Prevention paper at the National Suicide Prevention Conference in Hobart today, is calling for a greater focus on the issue.

“Given the numbers of women who think about suicide, plan their suicide, attempt their suicide and die by suicide is considerable and has a large impact on public health in Australia and internationally, we must make women more visible in suicide prevention programs and research,” Mr Murray said.

While young men’s suicides have reduced in number and rate since peaking in 1997, young women’s suicides have not.

As the report makes clear, young women are one particularly at-risk group. While young men’s suicides have reduced in number and rate since peaking in 1997, for example, young women’s suicides have not.

“There’s been an increase in young women dying, but it’s not part of our public dialogue,” report author Susan Beaton told ABC News.

“The numbers may not be as great as men in their middle years, and so we tend to focus on where the numbers are larger.”

Young women are also self-harming at higher rates than before — often so severely, they need hospitalisation.

“The number of women aged 15-24 years who injured themselves so severely that they require hospital treatment has increased by more than 50% since 2000,” Ms Murray said.

There’s been a spike in some forms of suicidal behaviour over the past few years – including a 50 percent increase in women aged 15-24 years who injured themselves so severely that they require hospital treatment.

There’s another, more insidious, reason women’s suicidal behaviour has been overlooked in research and suicide prevention programs: A perception that women are simply ‘seeking attention’ when they attempt suicide, despite what Ms Murray calls “evidence that shows clear intent, lethality and hospitalisation”.

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“Women who attempt suicide are often described as ‘attention-seeking’, aiming to manipulate their loved ones into feeling guilty or responsible,” the report notes.

It adds that this attitude can sutbly influence the way women’s suicidal behaviours are misunderstood by families, the community and service providers.

“Some healthcare staff continue to lack understanding and compassion, and in their time-poor, stressful work environments, often deem suicidal behaviour as ‘attention-seeking’,” the report says. “This greatly compromises the quality of care provided to women and potentially adds to their risk.”

Ms Murray said the research indicated a need for “more discussion on and research into how women are perceived in health settings” when they present with suicidal behaviour.

“We recommend increasing gender sensitive service provision to meet the needs of women at risk,” she said.

“Gender sensitivity training — knowledge, skills and attitudes — should be incorporated into suicide prevention training as well as workforce development training programs for staff whose roles intersect with women potentially at risk of suicide.”

A focus on women and suicide is particularly necessary given a recent increase in severe self-harm among young women.

While Ms Murray said an increased focus on women must not diminish the current focus on men’s suicide, she urged additional investment in women’s suicidal behaviour prevention.

“Even though women are highly represented in non-fatal suicidal behaviour, they are not very visible in suicide prevention programs and research,” Ms Murray said.

“There has been a focus on understanding and preventing suicide mortality rather than non fatal behaviours. With the majority of these deaths being men, this has meant limited research on understanding suicide and suicidal behaviour of women.

[W]we are at risk of ignoring the potentially devastating trends in suicidal behaviour in women.”

Risk factors for women:

The Suicide and Suicidal Behaviour in Women – Issues and Prevention discussion paper outlines the following risk factors for women. While summarised here for brevity, the full details are available to read online here.

Mental illness:

Women with a history of mental illness diagnoses have a greater risk of suicidal behaviours.

  • Eating disorders and depression carry an increased suicide risk.
  • This includes depression during the perinatal period. One in 10 women develop depression during pregnancy, and roughly 30% of pregnant women with depression experience suicidal ideation.
  • Peri menopause (the period shortly before the onset of menopause) is associated with a 16 fold increase in diagnoses of depression, and peri-menopausal women also have a higher rate and numbers of suicides than women of all other ages.

Domestic violence:

  • Women who have been abused by their intimate partners are almost four times more likely to have suicidal ideation compared to non-abused women and are at increased risk of suicide attempts.

Substance abuse:

  • Substance abuse is a strong identifier for detecting women at risk for suicide, and people who exhibit alcohol abuse have higher rates of suicide than the general population.

Sex abuse:

  •  Suicidal ideation is more common among women who have been sexually assaulted.

At-risk groups include:

  • LGBT+ people. People of lesbian, bisexual, and trans experience are at a higher risk for suicidal behaviours.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. As of 2012, suicide rates for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women aged 15–19 years and 20–24 years were 5.9 and 5.4 times the corresponding rates for non-Indigenous women.
  • People bereaved by suicide. Partners and mothers of people who die by suicide are the groups most at increased risk of suicide, out of all the relationships to the deceased.

If you need help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or access its online Crisis Support Chat here. Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467

Related content:

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‘What I’ll tell my children about my self-harm scars.’

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