Christine Morgan, Prime Minister's mental health and suicide prevention adviser, visits Armidale this week

Christine Morgan - CEO of the National Mental Health Commission, and the Prime Minister's newly-appointed National Suicide Prevention Adviser - will speak at Armidale Town Hall on Wednesday afternoon.

Ms Morgan wants to talk to Armidale and New England residents about their challenges to accessing services for mental health and suicide prevention, and what would work for our community.

Ms Morgan's visit is one stage on a three-month "Connections" tour of Australia to guide national priorities for the Commission's 2030 Vision for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.

"We need a mental health and a suicide prevention system and services that meet local needs," Ms Morgan said.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to have a lens into the complexities and other aspects of life in New England, and to hear that from the people who live there."

Ms Morgan will be at the Armidale Town Hall from 1 to 2.30pm. To register, visit: https://makingconnections-armidale.eventbrite.com.au

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Christine Morgan's role

Mental illness and suicide are worsening problems for Australia. Suicide rates have apparently increased in the last decade; 3128 people took their own lives in 2017, according to ABS figures, an increase of 9.1 per cent from 2686 in 2016.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has set a target of trying to reduce suicide to zero; to that end, he appointed Ms Morgan as Australia's first suicide prevention adviser last month.

"Towards zero means we have a total commitment to respecting the life of every Australian," Ms Morgan said. "We don't want to lose anyone."

She oversees a government-wide approach to the issue, working with the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet and Health Minister Greg Hunt.

"This issue is not going to be solved just by relying upon our health portfolios," Ms Morgan said. "We need to take the issue across all of government, and say this is something every Australian has to be concerned about."

The National Mental Health Commission is also determined to transform the mental health system by next decade - its 2030 Vision.

"If we could catapult ourselves into the future to 2030, and weren't hampered by the inadequacies of our current system, what would it look like if any Australian who was at risk of mental health or suicide had a system that was responsive, open, accessible?" Ms Morgan wondered.

"Once we can get agreement on that, we can start to strategically build towards that future, rather than just do what I would call an emerging strategy of 'rearranging the deck-chairs'."

Ms Morgan will advise the Prime Minister in November on immediate, short-term steps to address the issues, or try to accelerate reaching people. She will present her interim report in July, and a final report in December.

Ms Morgan has worked for a decade with eating disorders, including as CEO of the Butterfly Foundation and director of the National Eating Disorders Collaboration.

The complexities of suicide

Suicide, Ms Morgan said, is a complex issue; she is wary of pinning suicide down to a single cause.

"We know that when somebody attempts to take their life or dies from suicide, they are in the depths of despair," she said. "They have lost hope. We need to look at the factors that could lead somebody to that point in their life."

The factors could be mental health issues; a general health issue of chronic pain; trauma from their past, where they've lost all hope in humanity; social determinants, such as a heavy debt burden; homelessness; or addiction.

Environmental factors - such as drought - can create enormous stress and distress, Ms Morgan said. She believes they must be addressed if they drive people to despair.

Financial hardship - rife in a time of static wages and Robodebt - is a distal factor, Ms Morgan explained: an underlying vulnerability.

"Addressing the bigger economic issues is very further upstream, and is part of another agenda," Ms Morgan said, "but we need to look specifically from suicide prevention at the impacts of droughts or financial distress on an individual; and how can we step into that process, and reinstall some hope and a sense that there are other options for them."

Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people under 25, responsible for a third of fatalities.

"That's horrific," Ms Morgan said, "because young people have their whole lives ahead."

The Federal Government has committed $461 million in what they claim is the single largest investment in youth suicide prevention in Australia's history. Cyberbullying plays a large part, Ms Morgan believes.

Queer people are particularly at risk, according to the National LGBTI Health Alliance. Young LGBTIQ people aged 16 to 27 are five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual people; while transgender people over 18 are 11 times more likely.

"We need to be careful about saying one thing leads directly to another," Ms Morgan responded, "but if somebody has challenges about their identity, then that could be of concern to them. How somebody will identify from a gender perspective or their sexuality is really important; and the need to validate and support our individual identities is fundamental to each of us as human beings across genders and across cultures."

Indigenous Australians (one in 17 deaths) and veterans are also at risk. So, too, are people with eating disorders; sufferers from anorexia nervosa, Ms Morgan said, are 32 times more likely to attempt suicide than somebody in the general population.

Barriers to accessing services

Ms Morgan's tour takes her from Australia's capital cities to remote centres and islands. There is, she believes, a difference between the city and country in terms of access to mental health services, and the reasons for suicide.

"If we're going to find solutions, we need to realise that people live in communities and their living environments," Ms Morgan said. "What may work in a metropolitan environment may not work in one of the more remote or regional parts of Australia.

"If we're looking at redesigning our system, at what is going to reach all Australians, we need to understand the broad diversity of that environment, and try to find solutions sufficiently agile that they could reach into any community."

One of the saddest things Ms Morgan has heard on her travels is the stigma people feel when discussing mental health or suicide. While Australia has a high level of awareness, individuals too often feel ashamed to seek help.

"We desperately need to work towards reducing those levels of stigma so that people understand that looking after our mental health, and seeking help when we're not well, is just as normal as when seek help for when we're physically unwell."

To reduce stigma faster, Ms Morgan believes we must increase conversation in communities.

"We need to move towards what many people call normalising mental health," she said. "The more we can talk about it, the more we can make services accessible, the more we can look at how we create mentally healthy workplaces."

Australia, Ms Morgan thinks, needs more mental health services - particularly a problem outside metropolitan areas. Health and allied health professionals, plus other community members, should be trained to identify and intervene in mental health issues.

Providing a means for people to navigate health services is also important, Ms Morgan argued.

"What I'm hearing from many communities," she said, "is: 'Chris, could you just give us somebody who can help navigate what is there, because we don't know how to do it? We don't know how to reach the services and mental health space that we need.

"'When we have a physical health issue, we go to our GP to get a referral to a specialist. How do we access help if we have mental health challenges, but we may not be so acute that we're going to an emergency department? Where do we go?'"

Ms Morgan will travel to Bathurst.

More information on the Connections project is available on the Commission website: https://www.mentalhealthcommission.gov.au/our-work/connections.aspx.

Everyone is welcome to get involved by registering to join a Town Hall meeting or contributing their experiences online.

The National Mental Health Commission has launched an online survey as part of the Connections project, calling on all Australians to contribute to the future of mental health care, suicide prevention and wellbeing in our country.

The survey is for those who are unable to attend the Town Hall meetings, and/or if there is anything else they would like to contribute in addition to the meetings

If this has raised any issues for you, support is always available from:

. Lifeline on 13 11 14

. Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800

. Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636

This story Making Connections: Prime Minister's mental health adviser visits Armidale this week first appeared on The Armidale Express.

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