Has the suicide rate risen with the 2011 Queensland floods?
Prof Diego De Leo
This study compared the prevalence and characteristics of suicides following the January 2011 Queensland floods to the 11 years prior (for the period January-June) for two severely affected locations: Ipswich and Toowoomba.
Findings showed no significant increase in suicide rates during the 6 months after the floods. This may be explained by the elevated level of social support and care available in this period, which protected residents against risk factors for suicide. Nonetheless, the floods may have a delayed effect on suicide mortality.
This highlights the importance of continued monitoring of suicidal behaviors and providing support to the people affected.
Main findings: In January 2011, several regions of Queensland were affected by extreme flash flooding, in what has been described as the worst natural disaster to hit the state in the last 30 years(1).
Previous research has suggested that individuals who fall victim to natural disasters may experience suicidal ideation or attempts shortly after the event(2). However, a recent review of 42 papers examining the relationship between natural disasters and fatal and non-fatal suicidal behaviours worldwide has indicated that non-fatal suicidal behaviour may decrease in the period following the event and increase sometime after the event, due to diminishing availability of support from the community and mental health care professionals over time(3).
The review further indicates that the increase in suicidal behaviour over time may be impacted by other life factors such as mental disorders, property damage and economic problems(3). Findings regarding fatal suicidal behaviour were much less consistent, with studies showing mixed results(3).
The current study evaluated the impact of the 2011 floods on suicide rates in Ipswich and Toowoomba, after a coronial inquest suggested that rates may increase in the areas most affected by the floods. The study compared rates in the six months after the floods, to the same six month period (January-June) in 2000-2010.
Suicide cases in these areas were identified using the Queensland Suicide Register (QSR), and crude suicide rates were calculated using estimated population data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics(4). Results of the current paper suggested that fatal suicidal behaviour did not increase in the six months following the event. For Toowoomba in particular, suicide rates decreased following the floods. While no suicide cases in Ipswich in 2011 mentioned the floods as a significant stressor preceding the death, one suicide case from Toowoomba did mention the floods as a possible contributing factor, however, this case also involved other negative life factors such as financial problems, depression and unemployment.
Implications: Much of the current research analysing the impact of natural disasters on suicidal behaviours has been conducted overseas, with earthquakes being the most frequently studied disaster(3). While events such as earthquakes are rare in Australia, Australia is regularly affected by a number of other natural disasters, including floods, and the current study has built on existing literature by providing an analysis which is more relevant to the Australian context. Previous studies involving fatal suicidal behaviour have retrieved mixed results.
The current study lends support to the idea that fatal suicidal behaviours may decrease following a natural disaster, in a similar fashion to the decline consistently witnessed in non-fatal suicidal behaviours. However, more research is required in this area before a clear pattern over a longer period can be identified.
Research has suggested that suicidal behaviour may increase in the years following a natural disaster. As noted by the authors of the current study, to prevent a similar increase following the 2011 Queensland floods, it is imperative that continued mental health care and community support is made available to those individuals affected by the floods, particularly those who may be experiencing other life stressors such as mental illness or financial difficulties.
1. Queensland Government (2011). Operation Queenslander: The state community, economic and environmental recovery and reconstruction plan. Retrieved 09 January 2012 from http://www.qldreconstruction.org.au/state-plan
2. Chuang HL , Huang WC (2007). A re-examination of the suicide rates in Taiwan. Social Indicators Research 83, 465-485.
3. Kõlves K, Kõlves KE, De Leo D (2012). Natural disasters and suicidal behaviours: A systematic literature review. Journal of Affective Disorders. Published online: 20 August 2012. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2012.07.037, 2012
4. Australian Bureau of Statistics (2000-2010). Population by age and sex, regions of Australia. Canberra, Australia: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The paper was prepared by De Leo D, Too LS, Kõlves K, Milner A, Ide N (Australia).
Submitted by the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention at Griffith University