The problem of Indigenous suicide is one that demands our attention. Despite the awful figures, change is at hand, but progress is slow.
Suicide rates among Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander communities are amongst the highest in the world. This is a crisis born of violent dispossession, intergenerational trauma, and ongoing cultural atrocities.
In 2016, intentional self-harm was the fifth leading cause of death amongst First Nations people in this country. The suicide rate amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people stood at 23.8 deaths per 100,000 people that year, compared with 11.4 deaths per 100,000 non-Indigenous persons.
First Nations children and youth are particularly vulnerable to this crisis, which is only getting worse.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth account for 30 percent of the suicide deaths amongst people under the age of 18, and yet, they constitute less than 3 percent of the overall population.
Indeed, Indigenous youths between the ages of 15 and 24 are five times more likely to take their own lives, than their non-Indigenous peers.
Professor Patricia Dudgeon is the program director at the Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention. We spoke to Professor Dudgeon, a Bardi woman from the Kimberley about the ongoing crisis.
Professor Dudgeon, suicide is one of the highest causes of deaths amongst Indigenous people in Australia. More than 100 First Nations people take their own lives each year. However, before the 1960s, suicide amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities was almost unheard of. Why has the suicide rate grown so dramatically over the last half-century?
We’re living in a society that makes out that people are free and equal. But, it’s not the reality. We know from social determinant reports that Indigenous people do badly on all health and social indicators.
In some regards, there is a renaissance happening, and a great reclaiming of Indigenous culture. And there’s government acknowledgement and recognition of some of the terrible things that have happened in the past. The national apology is an example of that.
But still, there’s a great deal of disempowerment and misery in a lot of the communities, whether it is in remote or in urban situations.
Indigenous children and youths are particularly vulnerable. How can we account for such a high rate of suicide?
What’s happening is that Indigenous youth are seeing the world around them. And it’s a world that doesn’t include them. By ways of a solution, we rely on the work of professor Michael J Chandler, who conducted research with Canadian First Nations people.
Like a lot of our Indigenous counterparts, there’s a high level of suicide overall, and it’s pronounced in youth. It’s our youth that is particularly vulnerable.
So, they went into communities that had no suicides, and came up with what they called cultural continuity markers. And basically, translated into the Australian situation, they come down to self-determination, and community reclamation. Those things are very important.
If we can start that process of giving people a choice over their futures and lives, and we value their culture, things will change. That’s the big ask for us.
Certainly, within some of the research I’ve done in suicide prevention, the importance of culture emerges as a big issue for most communities. And also, self-determination and proper inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in anything that impacts them is important.
Suicide clusters, or spates of suicides, occur within Indigenous communities at times. How do you explain these tragedies?
If someone you know takes their life, then that possibility is open for you, when you’re in a situation that you can’t bear.
This also happens when celebrities take their own lives, it sometimes has an impact on society. The possibility of suicide becomes apparent to people. They think, “If they can do it, why can’t I?”
But, at the same time, when there is a suicide, these clusters don’t always occur.
In May 2013, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy was established. How important was it to establish a strategy that addressed the needs of First Nations communities? And what did it involve?
Mental health and suicide prevention is a big issue for us as a country, regardless of cultural background. So, I’m really pleased to see our consciousness about mental health and suicide prevention is increasing as a society.
We’re seeing quite a big shift in the way that we deal with mental health issues and suicide prevention.
Concurrently with that, we also need to focus on Indigenous mental health and suicide prevention, because it is different. We have two cultural groups. The suicide prevention strategy takes account of that, as well as, the earlier issue that I spoke about: the need for self-determination.
With any group that’s been marginalised and disempowered, we need to really include them in any decision-making matters that will impact upon them. Particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, given that long history of oppression and exclusion.
It’s only recently that things have started turning around. The apology was one of the symbols of that change. This is a country in denial about its Indigenous people, and the brutal processes of colonisation that has been imposed on them. It’s only recently, we’re saying, “Yes. That happened.”
And for Indigenous people themselves, that’s part of the healing, as well as accepting that racism is a part of our society, and starting to address it.
We’re seeing the results of a maturing society.
Following on from that, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project was set up. So, what sort of programs were out there? And how adequate did you find them?
We did a review of what we determined as successful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention programs, and most had common elements. We made seventeen recommendations. And we built upon the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy.
Particularly, it’s six broad action areas.
The first was building strength and capacity in communities in order to properly address suicide prevention. The community needs to be a part of that, not only in leading, but employed in doing it.
The second was building strength and resilience in individuals and families. Because suicide is often the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole lot of other things that are contributing to it. So, if we build people up, and facilitate their empowerment and resilience, then that will mitigate suicide.
Some of our outcomes found that programs that use peer-to-peer mentoring or education and leadership on suicide prevention were beneficial. Having good counselling and safe places for people to discuss their concerns is also beneficial.
There should be community site-specific programs using community organisations. And there should be different sorts of support material available, such as DVDs, as a lot of people don’t read, so we need to have messaging getting out in other ways.
Success factors included programs that connect young people through sport and other activities. And also, connect them to country, culture and community life, as well as to elders. But, most importantly, this must work through a cultural framework.
With the roundtables that were held across the country, the big things that emerged were the need for self-determination and local leadership.
We need to consider the social determinants of health, the impact of trauma, incarceration and justice issues, as well as supporting culture and identity.
You’ve stressed the importance of these strategies being community-led and culturally appropriate. Is there a need for government to take a step back when suicide prevention programs like these are being established?
We already see that happening. What we are starting to see is the regionalisation of resources with the advent of the Primary Health Networks. There’s a push to see more regional developments happening.
And in that, there’s space now for Indigenous communities to come up with their suicide prevention programs, and to submit for funding for those. So, we’re starting to see the beginning of that.
A lot of work will need to be done to continue to change the paradigm, because if a community wants more back to country camps, if they see that necessary to their community well-being, that needs to be considered and funded.
Part of self-determination is to encourage information sharing, and to enable communities to think through what will make a difference for them.
So, our job will be identifying and assessing evaluations for best practice, but also, research that is relevant to Indigenous suicide prevention, particularly through an Indigenous lens.
And lastly, over recent years, with the new focus on the Indigenous suicide crisis, is the situation improving?
The stats have not changed. And I don’t think it’s getting any better. But, it’s unrealistic to expect a magic wand. That’s not going to happen, and it’s taken a long time to get to where we are. It’s going to take a long time to change it.
There have been communities, who’ve had high suicide rates that have dropped. We’re engaged in research with them, and we’re going to try and identify what actually happened to cause that turnaround.
But, overall, it won’t be an overnight solution. As I said earlier, there’s the issue of social determinants. If you’ve got an issue with unemployment rates, low education, high levels of racism and poor levels of health, they all contribute to the big picture as well.
While there will be better programs, and I expect better programs to come from the reforms that are happening, it will take a while to turn things around.