By TILEAH DOBSON
In earlier decades, mental health was a taboo subject for many Australians due to the negative stigma attached to it and a lack of scientific understanding of the subject. However, in recent years, mental health awareness has risen in both domestic and international settings.
After suffering a devastating bushfire season in 2019-2020, then dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, the nation is yet to have a moment to catch its breath. These events, combined with entrenched social disadvantages, have lead to a heavy demand on mental health services, exposing the nation’s limitations in mental health and suicide prevention and aftercare.
Some cohorts are especially vulnerable. The Australian Government Department of Health has reported that Australians in the age group 16-24 are the most vulnerable to mental illness, along with members of the LGBTIQ+ community, and sex and/or gender diverse (SGD) communities.
According to the Snapshot of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Statistics for LGBTIQ+ People document released by LGBTIQ+ Health Australia in April 2021, 11 per cent of LGBTIQ+ young people of 16-17 had attempted suicide in the last 12 months, 25.6 per cent of those aged 16-17 had attempted suicide in their lifetime, while 48.1 per cent of transgender and gender diverse people aged 14 to 25 had reported attempting suicide in their lifetime.
These alarming statistics present only a few insights into a wider issue; one the Australian Government is now taking somewhat more seriously, thanks in part to the efforts of the Sex and Gender Education (SAGE) Australia organisation, which put in a submission to the House of Representatives Select Committee on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. The committee has now released its Mental Health and Suicide Prevention – Final Report.
SAGE Australia spokesperson, Sydney-based Dr Tracie O’Keefe, was one of a number of key individuals who presented to the Select Committee on mental health and suicide prevention.
“SAGE sent in a submission, and we were invited to take part in the Select Committee,” said Dr O’Keefe, who is a sexologist and specialist in sex and/or gender diversity, as well as being an intersex and trans woman.
“Parliamentary enquiries are lengthy and cross-party, going through various stages like inviting public submissions from stakeholders, hearing parliamentary testimony from stakeholders and experts, and finally producing a report. I believe it took around a couple of years to get to this state,” she told The Sentinel.
When asked if she was happy with the final report and the government’s recommendations around specialist services for LGBTIQ+ and SGD groups, Dr O’Keefe had mixed feelings.
“The report does have some good recommendations like more training for health mental professionals, training for GPs, greater funding requirements and involvement of community members in professional education policies,” she said.
“However, it ignores the Morrison Government’s intersex and transphobic policies that have been a major cause of mental health deterioration for many people from SGD groups.
“Suicidality in these groups is mainly caused by social exclusion.”
In its submission to the Select Committee, SAGE drew attention to several Commonwealth bills which risk increasing discrimination against SGD individuals, including the Religious Discrimination Bill 2019, the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020 and the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Bill 2021.
SAGE was formed in 2001 to campaign for the social and legal rights of the SGD community. They have become a public voice over the years, lobbying and effecting changes to laws around rights and respect for SGD and LGBTIQ+ people.
The organisation has a history of work around suicide prevention, collecting personal stories from SGD individuals as part of its SGD Life Over Suicide Project. The project includes personal life stories from SGD individuals who have considered suicide but made the decision to go on living.
Dr O’Keefe said the organisation would soon release a vital new tool for healthcare professionals.
“We are on the verge of releasing the three-year research work on suicide in SGD groups which is part of my new book for healthcare professionals. It’s extensive, ground-breaking and will be the largest work of its kind,” she said.
For more information on SAGE’s latest work and campaigns, visit https://sageaustralia.org/.
Tileah Dobson is the news editor of the Sydney Sentinel.
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