Substance use and Stressful and traumatic life events, poor living circumstances, loss of a loved one, a lack of social support have all been identified as contributing to an increased risk of a person dying by suicide. Despite this, suicidality is traditionally understood as a mental health crisis that requires a clinical response.
However, research and the voice of people with lived experience of surviving a suicide attempt shows that clinical responses are not always effective in helping people in psychological distress recover and can lead to more disruption and even trauma.
Suicide rates in the Illawarra Shoalhaven region are consistently higher than national and NSW State averages, fluctuating between 40-60 deaths by suicide per year, and the region has a relatively high number of people who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. There are many organisations working independently to improve the access suicide prevention services in the area, but the rates aren’t coming down.
The Collaborative was established in 2015 as a way for organisations in the region, as well as lived experience advocates, to come together and work collaboratively to improve wellbeing outcomes for people and reduce suicidality in the community.
The Collaborative now meets monthly and includes over 40 organisations including Grand Pacific Health, University of Wollongong, Lifeline and NSW Department of Education.
The Safe Space initiative was born out of a fundamental element of the Collaborative – the voice of lived experience of suicide and recovery. The Collaborative identified a need for an alternate model to traditional clinical interventions, such as a non-clinical support option that is led and run by people who have their own lived experience of suicide and recovery and use that experience to support other people during times of distress (safe space model).
The Safe Space initiative is based on a peer-run respite model that has been used effectively in Australia and internationally to support people during times of distress. This model is based on evidence that peer-to-peer relationships help to establish meaningful connections and can be a protective factor against suicidality.
The Safe Space model proposes a free and flexible service and will be largely determined by the person accessing the space. It would have the capacity for people to drop in for a cup of tea and a chat, participate in daily activities and groups, and potentially support overnight and short-term stays.
“It’s the sort of place where you might not feel great, but you can be around people… who have insight and understanding into how you’re feeling at that time and may be able to help you to reframe your thoughts and feelings and to help you come out the other side” - Bruce, Safe Space working group.
A peer-led working group meets regularly to design and develop a Safe Space in the Wollongong area. The group, which includes people with a lived experience of suicide and recovery, is in the process of securing funding.
“A few weeks ago…I had to run through the checklist of what my current risks and protective factors to suicide are and I actually realised that one of my proactive factors is my participation in the Collaborative. It really struck me that it’s not just that I get to be heard but that in itself has become one of my protective factors against suicide.” - Carrie, Safe Space working group.