An Australian National University study putting lived experience at the forefront hopes to understand how a "safe space cafe" could be a better alternative to the emergency department for people in suicidal crisis.
The ANU has received a $1.35 million grant from the federal government for the project, which will examine the effectiveness of safe spaces in the ACT and NSW.
The study will look at "safe havens" as non-clinical alternatives for people experiencing suicidal behaviour, who may find the emergency department distressing.
Lead investigator Associate Professor Michelle Banfield said lived experience was "front and centre" throughout the study.
"I'm someone who openly identifies as somebody who has suicidal ideation. More than half of our investigators are people who identify as either themselves, or as a carer of people, who have experienced suicidal behaviour," she said.
"Lived experience is expertise, and it's a critical piece of expertise for research like this."
The ACT is in the process of opening two pilot safe haven cafes while NSW plans to deliver 20 across the state.
Associate Professor Banfield said the cafes were designed to be "as far away" from the feel of a health facility as possible.
"People are referred to as guests or clients, because they are coming there to have a cup of coffee, perhaps to do some activities or to have a conversation with a peer worker, to move them out of that extreme distress they're in," she said.
"There is a cohort of people who need to be in emergency departments, but there is a large cohort of people in severe distress for whom the emergency department escalates their distress.
"There's growing evidence that directing somebody to a safe supportive space is the most important thing here."
Associate Professor Banfield said the cafes were also designed to be somewhere people can go before they reach an "extreme space".
The three-year study seeks to understand whether the concept is feasible and acceptable for people in emotional distress and suicidal crisis.
The cafes are "co-created" by people with lived experience, local health providers and governments so each cafe reflects the needs of the community it resides in.
"What we're doing with the research is also looking at that co-design and co-creation process and [determining] what are the strengths and challenges in that," Associate Professor Banfield said.
Melbourne has operated a safe haven cafe since 2018 while most other states are trialling similar models.
Associate Professor Banfield said while there were many reports on the initiative, which began in the United Kingdom, there was very little peer-reviewed literature on the topic.
"We're hoping that the scale of this project will provide that opportunity to create that basis within the scientific literature as well," she said.
The University of Western Australia also received a $1.28 million federal government grant for their project, Expand WA, which will seek to improve aftercare services among people aged 10 to 17 who present to hospital with self-harm or suicidal crisis.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the research projects will contribute to more effective responses for people at the time of suicidal or emotional distress.
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