Understanding suicidal transitions

10 October 2023

Three out of every 100 Australians aged 16-85 years have experienced suicidal thoughts or behaviours in the last 12 months. What drives a person to make the step from suicidal thoughts to attempt their own life is a complex process, and one that Professor Philip Batterham and his colleagues want to unravel through the LifeTrack Project.

“We are undertaking a longitudinal cohort study that hopes to find out what factors may drive this transition from suicidal thoughts into suicidal behaviour. Similarly, we want to discover why many people who have suicidal thoughts stop having those thoughts,” says Batterham.

While there is a lot of evidence around why people develop thoughts about suicide, and some evidence around why some people attempt suicide and die by suicide, studies are usually cross-sectional, i.e. from a snapshot in time.

“By having this long-term approach over three years, we will track both the risk factors that may lead to suicidal behaviour, as well as the progression of suicidal behaviour over time.”

Alternatively, existing evidence also comes from small clinical studies.

“This study is also unique because of its population based setting, meaning that participants are recruited from the general community rather than clinical setting. This is important because we know that a lot of people who have suicidal thoughts don't necessarily engage with clinical care,” says Batterham.

The study currently has over 700 study participants from all over Australia who have recently experienced suicidal thoughts. They are asked to complete an online survey every six months that covers topics such as thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, mental health treatment, and whether the participant has experienced certain stressful life events.

“We know that in a lot of cases when people attempt suicide, it may be triggered by a specific situation such as a relationship breakdown, financial struggles, or job loss. So we're measuring a range of different factors that may lead people to engage in suicidal behaviour,”

The research team will also test the existing theoretical model that social disconnection is a strong risk factor for suicidal behaviour.

“Suicidal behaviour is a complex behaviour that is determined by a whole constellation of risk factors. So  something that might be a risk factor for one person may not be the same for someone else,” says Batterham.

“Understanding different trajectories can then help us to identify which people or groups of people may be most at risk of suicidal behaviour. This may lead us to develop better approaches to treatment, prevention, and support for those people who are experiencing suicidal distress.”

Batterham also hopes the study will not only identify risk factors, but also protective factors, and ways to tailor public health or clinical interventions to better support people who are experiencing suicidal distress.



‘LifeTrack: Understanding Suicidal Transitions’ is currently in its second year of study. The project is funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, and led by ANU in collaboration with researchers from the Black Dog Institute, the Centre for Adolescent Health at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, and the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use at the University of Sydney.

You can find out more about this research on the LifeTrack Project page.

By Liz Drummond