With World Suicide Prevention Day approaching on 10 September, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP), headed by Australian University Chancellor Professor Tom Calma and Indigenous Mental Health Commissioner Pat Dudgeon, have issued the statement below calling for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide rates, which are among the highest in the world, to become a national priority and subject to a national inquiry or Royal Commission.
The tragedy of suicide is one of the leading causes of death among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. On average, over 130 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders ended their lives each year in the last five years. This is 30 per cent more suicides than in the 10 years preceding. One in 19 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths is accounted for by suicide. But because of under-reporting issues the ATSISPEP know that it is much higher – estimated at one in 12.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people between the ages of 15 to 35 years are at highest risk, with suicide the leading cause of death in this age group, accounting for one in 3 deaths. This tragic statistic should galvanise the nation and our governments – into comprehensive responses.
Professor Calma stated, “In the mid-1980s 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody prompted a Royal Commission and the current tragedy of Indigenous suicides should prompt similar attention. While some attention is being paid by governments, more needs to be done to address the determinants that contribute to the psychological stressors that afflict Indigenous society.”
Professor Pat Dudgeon stated, “This is a crisis situation. Strong and immediate action is needed such as a national inquiry. However, a national inquiry or royal commission should not pause or delay initiatives that are already in place or are about to be put in place.”The ATSISPEP is travelling the nation convening regional and community roundtables to complement a comprehensive report to the Federal Government. ATSISPEP has held six roundtables so far with three further – ensuring a comprehensive demographical engagement. Facilitating the roundtables is Adele Cox, the ATSISPEP’s national senior community consultant. Ms Cox, a Bunuba Gija woman from the Kimberley has dedicated the last 18 years to suicide prevention.
Adele Cox stated, “Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country now fear that suicide amongst our mob is seen as and is becoming normal behaviour. Things have changed at government level, as well as at community level so that we support our kids, our families and our communities to change these attitudes and these behaviours.”
ATSISPEP community consultant Gerry Georgatos reports that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of the Kimberley, far north Queensland and the Northern Territory endure among the world’s highest self-harm and suicide rates amid extreme poverty which is driving not only the increasing rates of self-harms and suicides but also the high arrest and incarceration rates. He said at least one in 10 and up to one in 6 of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living have been to jail. He describes this as “racialised imprisonment”.
Gerry Georgatos stated, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are a catastrophic humanitarian crisis in an abyss of despair as long as governments penny-pinch and deal in reductionist and piecemeal offerings. There is no greater legacy that any government can have than in the improving of the lot of others to the point of saving lives.”
The ATSISPEP has generated work around real time data, disaggregated data and analyses, identifying triggers to assist critical responses and in an evaluation framework of what works and what does not.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide is the culmination of stresses and impacts, the majority of which are not felt by the rest of the Australian population – and which include the impacts of colonisation, acute poverty and marginalisation, various life stresses, psychological stresses and the sense of racism. The crisis is a pressing issue – a humanitarian crisis – however if lives are to be saved it needs to translate as the nation’s priority.
The ATSISPEP’s partners include the Healing Foundation and the Telethon Institute Western Australia. The ATSISPEP is funded by Prime Minister and Cabinet and is located at the University of Western Australia. ATSISPEP recently travelled to the Kimberley where in Broome it convened a roundtable. It will now head to far north Queensland and convene a suicide prevention roundtable in Cairns.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of the Kimberley and far north Queensland have the nation’s highest suicide rates – over 70 suicides per 100,000 population – seven times the Australian overall national trend, with some parts of these regions with suicide rates up to 20 times. In the last five years in the Kimberley there have been registered as many suicides as were registered in the preceding ten years.
The ATSISPEP commend the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion for enabling the ATSISPEP and for his ongoing responsiveness but warn the suicide crisis and the underlying issues require a whole of government approach, require substantial dedications of funding, and ultimately require either a national inquiry or Royal Commission.
For help or more information
For people who may be experiencing sadness or trauma, please visit these links to services and support
• For young people 5-25 years, call kids help line 1800 55 1800
• For resources on social and emotional wellbeing and mental health services in Aboriginal Australia, see here.