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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 11638

Address at the National Suicide Advisory Council Meeting Parliament House, Canberra

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 12/10/2000

Release Type: Speech

Transcript ID: 11638

Subjects: National Suicide Advisory Council; youth suicide; mental health.

E&OE..................

Well thank you Professor Webster and I would like first of all to welcome in particular the members of the new National Advisory Council on Suicide Prevention.

There are many things that we find especially perplexing about life, I suppose one of the most puzzling, perplexing, saddest things I find is that in a country like Australia which has so much going for it and in so many ways is doing so well and is such an exemplar to the world that we should have up against that great national achievement, that we should have such a high level of suicide particularly amongst young people, particularly amongst young males, particularly amongst young males living in non-metropolitan areas of Australia. Now that's only one part of the challenge of Mental Health Week, but it's something that of course is the focus of the work of the newly appointed members of the Council and I do want to thank them very much for accepting the Government's invitation to join the body. And I'm encouraged by what Professor Webster said about the way in which Australia is endeavouring to tackle this particular issue.

I hope it's not too much nationalistic hyperbole to say that in some of these areas that involve co-operation between what could broadly be called a public health approach and the private side of health in Australia we do rather better than many. And the fact that we've got a national body, just as we were able in the early years of the challenge of AIDS and HIV infection, we were able to do better than many although we can't be complacent in that area for a moment. So it is I hope that we can do rather better than others, not from a point of view of winning some kind of international competition but because it is a particularly challenging problem.

I can assure you that the life, the work of a Member of Parliament brings him or her into contact with the devastating effect of suicide on families. And I've said before at gatherings like this that among the most moving and difficult and distressing conversations I've had in my work as a Member of Parliament has been talking to parents grappling with the tragedy of the suicide of their children. And many of us on both sides of politics have been touched by this and only last week I had a conversation with one of my colleagues who in a very direct way had come into contact with this terrible experience and no doubt there are many in this room that have been touched by it in a very direct way. And I hope in a small but effective fashion over a period of time what the Government is doing will make a contribution to a better understanding.

We have allocated a programme of $48 million to finance in particular support for groups in the community and I am announcing today the first allocation of $2.9 million for various groups in the Australian community and much of your work over the months and I hope several years ahead will be to advise the Government on the allocation of the rest of the $48 million. But these go to a group of organisations and activities which we think will make some difference. And it can only be some over a period of time. It's important to have a great deal of commitment and a great deal of resolution, but it's also important to be realistic about what we might be able to achieve. But the important thing is to have a sense of co-operation between the Government, between the public service, the public side of health provision and also the volunteer organisations and the established committed welfare organisations in the Australian community. All of whom do very good work. And I do want to foster with this as I do with many other things the notion of a social coalition, or a social partnership where you don't say the Government has all the answers but equally government health services have a lot of experience and they have a very important role to play. I don't want anybody marginalised in the effort, I want everybody to work together in a co-operative fashion.

And there are many things that we need to help. I've always been impressed with the valuable support that organisations like Kids' Help Line provides. The fact that so many young people feel so disconnected with their families, with their friends, that they would feel desperate enough to take their own lives is one of the things that we have to come to terms with and I've certainly believed all my life that the work of those organisations that provide 24 hour counseling and help at the end of the telephone are a very important weapon in fighting the scourge of suicide particularly amongst the young within our community.

The broader question of mental health of course is something that's always in the health debate in the Australian community. When I think of the balance sheet of human advancement and human achievement in my lifetime and I think of the things where I believe that we handle so much better now than we did when I was a young person, one of the things that springs to mind is mental health. Years ago there was a bit of a conspiracy of silence about mental illnesses, there was clearly within the community a view that it was something to be shut away and not talked about. I think that's changed permanently for the better over the last generation. There'll be arguments about the balance of institutional care versus supportive independent living, and there'll always be a bit of a debate about the balance that should be struck. But undoubtedly the community has a far more compassionate, mature, sensible attitude towards mental illness now than used to be the case and the medical profession and many others have played a major role in bringing about that change. And Mental Health Week seeks to focus that sensible approach within the community and it's something that I think as a society and as a nation we very properly observe.

I have taken a keen personal interest in government efforts to deal with the problem of suicide, along with Michael Wooldridge who apologises for not being here today because he's at a health conference in Washington. We are both very committed to working with the members of the council and we're working with all in the community to see if over a period of time we can make a difference. And I do thank Professor Webster and all the other members of the council and everybody else connected with this very very important effort. And I hope that after a year or two of the council's operations and particularly after the resources have started to filter through that we can feel that we've made a difference.

I think in many of the other challenging areas we have in the community such as fighting the problem of drugs, and of course drugs and suicide are related, we are starting to make some difference with a collaborative approach. We have I believe started to make a practical difference and just as in the drug area there will be continuing debates about policy emphasis, as to most of the things that people try to do there's overwhelming agreement. And I believe the same exists in this area and it is very much a bipartisan thing. I don't see fighting the scourge of suicide within our community as being a party political issue. I see it as something of a national crusade and I know that members of the Opposition will support what the Government is trying to do in this area as indeed we endeavoured to support the efforts of the former government when it was in office. This is the sort of thing that should not become a play thing of party politics. There is goodwill to try and do something about it.

I have great pleasure in formally welcoming the members of the council, thanking them for their commitment. I wish the work of the council well and it's entirely appropriate that this meeting take place as it does in Mental Health Week. And it's very important humanitarian work and something that makes public service very worthwhile. Thank you.

Transcript 11638