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Case Study 3: ABS study identifies risk factors to enhance suicide data (Target 1.2, Measure 1.2.2)

The ABS devised and piloted a method for identifying and recording psychosocial risk factors associated with suicide deaths. This pilot study aimed to enhance suicide data by providing information on complex factors associated with suicidal behaviour, enabling more targeted intervention strategies.

Information on suicide deaths is critically important to help inform suicide prevention activities. National mortality data is used extensively to monitor trends in suicide deaths, providing insights into death rates, changes in demographics, and other diseases and conditions associated with suicide deaths.

In recognition of the need to understand factors relating to deaths – especially suicide deaths – the ABS devised a framework and trial method for capturing information on ‘risk factors’ using the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). The ICD is a global health information standard for mortality and morbidity statistics, used in clinical care and research to define diseases and study disease patterns.

In 2018-19, the ABS undertook a pilot study on 2017 Australian registered suicide deaths, capturing psychosocial risk factors through a comprehensive review of reports on the National Coronial Information System (NCIS). The NCIS is a repository of police, toxicology and pathology reports as well as coronial findings, which provide information on intent, mechanism and other relevant diseases or conditions. These reports also contain information on lifestyle factors that may have contributed to a death.

Examples of commonly identified risk factors included:

  • personal history of self-harm
  • disruption of family due to separation and divorce
  • problems in relationship with spouse or partner including domestic violence
  • problems relating to legal circumstance
  • death of a family member or friend
  • problems relating to economic circumstances, and
  • limitation of abilities due to disability or chronic illness.

Recording psycho-social risk factors in national mortality data could provide a nationally consistent dataset that more comprehensively describes the combination of factors contributing to suicide deaths.

This dataset could be used to strengthen local and national suicide data infrastructure, and better understand suicidal behaviour amongst Australians, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. This richer source of information could also allow for targeted whole of government policy responses.

Now the pilot study is complete, work will commence with the NCIS, researchers and other government departments including the AIHW and the Department of Health to refine the methods and future scope of this work. Successful integration of risk factors into national mortality data could help target future intervention strategies and enable better monitoring of both emerging trends and the effectiveness of prevention strategies.

The ABS has also worked with international partners and the World Health Organisation to embed psycho-social factors in the structure of the revised International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). The revision is now able to systematically capture these factors, and while adoption of ICD-11 may be several years away, this will provide a viable longer term mechanism for systematically capturing this critical health information.