In early 2021, the final report and recommendations of the landmark Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System were handed down, providing an opportunity to rebuild the system to work for all Victorians.
The Royal Commission identified that the state’s mental health system had been failing for decades, and that systemic gaps had been exacerbated by COVID-19 and natural disasters.
Jesuit Social Services was particularly pleased that the Royal Commission recognised the importance of postvention services that support people bereaved by suicide, and outlined that all Victorians bereaved by suicide should have access to evidence-informed postvention bereavement services.
Since 2004, we have operated the Support After Suicide program which delivers services including counselling, group support and online resources to people who have lost a loved one to suicide. Support After Suicide also engages in secondary consultation to professionals and provided education and training to other organisations on issues such as suicide bereavement support.
This work serves the dual function of bereavement support and suicide prevention, given British researchers have found that bereaved people are 65 per cent more likely to attempt suicide if they are grieving for loved ones who took their own lives. Represented in terms of absolute risk, this equates to 1 in 10 people who lose friends or relatives to suicide being at risk of following suit.
The Royal Commission also found, through its consultation with service providers and people with lived experience, that not only are people bereaved by suicide at an increased risk of suicide, there is an increased risk of developing mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and PTSD and are more likely to withdraw from employment, education and community life.
Support After Suicide is an integral part of the first response to suicide in Victoria with Victoria Police making referrals directly to the program. It provides direct support to more than 1000 people bereaved by suicide each year. It is one of the few services in Victoria to support those bereaved by suicide with specialist expertise in counselling and groups.
As a participant told us, “I had a notion of depression before but after the suicide you really start to experience it yourself. It was so important to get reassurance that these feelings were ok, that I was going to be ok. It is such an important distinction between feeling depressed and sad because I had lost my son, but not feeling so depressed and sad that I would end up like my son.”
While the effectiveness of the program is clear in feedback received from participants, Support After Suicide’s funding is uncertain.
The program receives no funding from the Victorian Government and is currently funded by the Commonwealth Government to June 2023, with no long-term certainty.
Our view is that there are not enough services available in metropolitan Melbourne, with even fewer services in rural and regional areas for people bereaved by suicide.
We call on the incoming Victorian Government to work towards a sustainable funding model to ensure that all Victorians have access to effective services to help them navigate the complex grief and trauma associated with the suicide of a loved one. We believe this should include access to specialist counselling services and group support.
Soft entry points to the mental health system
Through our decades of work with young people experiencing multiple and complex challenges, we have observed that young people experiencing mental illness, substance misuse and associated difficulties often struggle to engage with the formal mental health service system.
That’s why in the mid-1990s we established the Artful Dodgers Studios and Connexions, two programs that have helped thousands of young people deal with mental illness, substance misuse and associated difficulties.
These programs take relationship-based approaches to working with young people and in the case of Artful Dodgers, serve as a soft entry point to engage young people with mental illness who aren’t ready for formal participation with social or health workers in creative activities.
By creating a space where young people are welcomed, and forming relationships, we can then work to link them into other services.
We will continue to advocate to the incoming Victorian Government for recurrent funding for assertive outreach and activity-based programs with ‘soft entry points’ for marginalised young people with mental health and other complex problems.