There were concerns the number of suicides would surge during the COVID-19 pandemic, with modelling from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre predicting in May there could be a 25 per cent increase.
Victorian State Coroner Judge John Cain said it was encouraging to see the suicide rate for 2020 was lower than 2019.
“The exceptional work by health workers and those in the mental health sector has most certainly been a contributing factor,” Judge Cain said.
Judge Cain said despite the decrease, the number of suicides in Victoria was still very concerning.
“Almost 700 deaths is far too many,” he said.
“As a community, we have a role to play in preventing more of these deaths – by checking in on each other and encouraging open discussion.”
Beyond Blue chief executive Georgie Harman said the 42 per cent increase in calls from people seeking help in 2020 coincided with outbreaks of COVID-19 in the community.
The main reason people were calling was for help with anxiety, but also loneliness, exhaustion and frustration.
Ms Harman said an increase in calls is what the organisation wanted to see in a year when people faced huge uncertainty, stress and anxiety.
“We’ve been through a year where we’re having a much deeper and wider conversation about mental health and that is a positive trend. If we throw this thing into the shadows, that’s where it will stay,” Ms Harman said.
Youth mental health service Orygen’s head of suicide prevention, Associate Professor Jo Robinson, warned the long-term impact of the pandemic was yet to be felt.
“I suspect we’re not out of the woods yet in terms of the impact on people’s mental health and suicide rates,” Professor Robinson said.
She said there has been increases in indicators of suicide risk, including self-harm presentations at emergency departments.
Professor Robinson said she was concerned about the impact on mental health once financial support, such as the JobKeeper extension, finishes in March.
“I worry whilst it’s very good we’re not seeing increases yet, we shouldn’t take our eye off the ball and one of the things we’re worried about is the impact on the economy,” she said.
Orygen and Beyond Blue praised both state and federal governments for their focus on and funding of mental health services during the pandemic.
Victoria’s figures were similar to those released in NSW.
The NSW government last month released data showing a 5 per cent decrease in the number of suicides in the year to November 2020, compared to the same period the year before.
Not all investigations into suicides recorded by the Victorian Coroners Court in 2020 have been fully completed. Some may be removed from the data if an investigation establishes that suicide was not the likely cause, and, conversely, more could be added if new evidence comes to light. The court said the data changes were usually minor and were consistently 95 per cent accurate.
Tammy Mills is the legal affairs reporter for The Age.