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Excellence in mental health research for men

Judy Proudfoot

Photo credit: Black Dog Institute

Associate Professor Judy Proudfoot

University of New South Wales | 2012 | $2,602,457

Suicide is the most common cause of death in Australians aged 15-44 years old—accounting for 35% of deaths in 15-24 year olds and 28.6% of deaths in 25-44 year olds (ABS, 2016)

Suicide is an extremely complex issue and, over the last 10 years, the suicide rate in Australia has steadily increased.

Associate Professor Judy Proudfoot, a mental health researcher at the Black Dog Institute, is working with experts in Australia and New Zealand to understand the complex pathways that result in suicide, improve risk detection, determine the best way to deliver interventions and to prioritise government programs and services.

One  focus of research has has been suicide in men.  The suicide rate among Australian men is three times greater than that for women, reaching a peak in 2015 of 19.3 deaths per 100,000 men (ABS, Causes of Death 2016).

NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention (CRESP) jointly funded with Beyondblue and The Movember Foundation has conducted two studies targeting men’s mental health and suicide prevention to develop key tools and strategies in an effort to reduce the suicide rates and improve mental health in men.

‘Men are less likely to seek professional help when they are depressed or stressed and they can resort to unhelpful coping strategies such as drug and alcohol abuse, withdrawing socially, gambling and overwork,’ A/Professor Proudfoot explained.

‘Warning signs of suicide risk described by our study participants were anger and irritability, sleep problems, loss of interest in people and things, isolating themselves and not taking care of themselves.

‘Together, the two studies provided valuable information about the early warning signs of suicidal thinking, methods to interrupt such thinking and strategies men have found useful to prevent and manage depression.’

The research led to the development of a module for men, called Man Central, in the Black Dog Institute’s online psychological treatment program for depression and anxiety —'MyCompass’.

‘Man Central incorporates the techniques described by the men in our research to prevent and manage mental health issues. It is for men and by men.  The online format is advantageous, in that it allows men to use it anonymously, privately and at any time of the day or night,’ A/Professor Proudfoot said.

‘To prevent depression, men recommended having a balanced and regular routine involving keeping physically healthy, engaging in enjoyable activities, maintaining social connections and setting goals which can be achieved.  For managing depression, helpful coping strategies included exercise and healthy eating, taking time out, rewarding yourself, distracting from negative thoughts/feelings, talking to a trusted person, and reframing thoughts and feelings. 

‘Ways to interrupt suicidal thinking included reminding men how much they are loved, gently helping them to think about the consequences of suicide, listening without judgement and if possible, organising a physical activity ‘to break the spiral of thought’.’

Researchers at Black Dog Institute have developed LifeSpan – a new systems approach that aims to have a significant impact on suicide rates as part of Australia’s largest scientific suicide prevention trial. The LifeSpan model has been adopted in 12 sites as part of the National Suicide Prevention trials.   

‘Through LifeSpan, for the first time, government health agencies will be formally connected to councils, schools, emergency services, workplaces and individuals with lived experiences in communities across Australia,’ Professor Helen Christensen, lead investigator for the Centre for Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention (CRESP) and Director and Chief Scientist at Black Dog Institute, wrote.

‘Evidence-based suicide prevention programs will be integrated into real community settings—looking at the needs and resources available.

‘Researchers will collect and analyse data in real time, guiding tailored improvements and enabling prioritisation of high-risk locations and populations.’

NHMRC’s Centres of Research Excellence (CRE) aim to improve health outcomes and promote translation of research outcomes into policy and/or practice. They provide support for teams of researchers to pursue collaborative research and develop capacity.

‘CREs allow researchers to undertake a structured program of research that is both broad and deep within a priority area such a suicide prevention.  They also allow us to develop new researchers, which is really important,’ A/Professor Proudfoot said.