People

Aboriginal suicide rates

Suicide was unknown to Aboriginal people prior to invasion.

Appalling living conditions and past traumas have led to a suicide rate that by far exceeds that of non-Aboriginal people.

Selected statistics

95%
Proportion of Aboriginal people in Australia who are affected by a suicide [38].
6
Times greater: The likelihood that Aboriginal people commit suicide, compared to non-Aboriginal people. The Kimberley region has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. [10]
50%
Proportion of suicides in the Northern Territory which were Aboriginal in 2010. Same figure for 1991: 5% [18].
143
Number of threatened, attempted or completed suicides in an Aboriginal community of 5,500 people in 2007 and 2008 [1].
30
Number of young people in every 100,000 who commit suicide in the Northern Territory. Same figure for New South Wales: 1 in 100,000 [6].
$700
Alleged price of a bottle of alcohol on the black market. Alcohol is a common factor in suicides [1].
75%
Percentage of child suicides between 2007 and 2011 where the child was Aboriginal [12].
80%
Percentage of suicides of youth aged 10 to 24 in 2011 where the victim was Aboriginal. Same figure for 1991: 10% [18].
40%
Proportion the suicide rate for Aboriginal males is higher than that for non-Aboriginal males [14].
4.9%
Percentage of Aboriginal deaths which are from suicide in 2014; in 2012: 4.5% [35]; in 2011: 4.2%. Figure for non-Aboriginal Australians in 2011: 1.5% [11].
140
Number of estimated annual Aboriginal suicides in Australia in 2014; in 2012: 120 [35]; for the years 2001 to 2010: 100 (reported average) [25].
117
Number of reported Aboriginal suicides in Australia in 2012 [25].
70
Suicides per 100,000 people in 2014 in the Kimberley; overall national rate: 11; world’s highest overall national rate (Guyana, South America): 44 [31].

“Death is our life”—Aboriginal suicide is at crisis levels

No word in the ancient Yolngu language describes suicide.—Sydney Morning Herald [1]

Suicide was unknown to Aboriginal people traditionally.—Robert Eggington, Nyoongar leader [2]

Almost non-existent in the 1980s, the rate of suicide and self harm amongst Aboriginal people has reached crisis levels and “horrific proportions”, particularly in remote communities and particularly amongst youth. Despite suicide rates rising, the Australian government does not respond adequately to this epidemic.

“Death is our life,” says South Australian Elder Tauto Sansbury, describing the state of the Aboriginal landscape Australia-wide, of mourning and sadness for young lives lost far too often [22].

With 95% of Aboriginal people in Australia are affected by suicide, many of them are born into families where grief from suicide already exists, sometimes across two or three generations. Suicide is likely the single biggest killer of Aboriginal Australians. [38]

Research by journalist Gerry Georgatos found “that the prevalence of spates of suicides among Australian Aboriginal youth are the world’s highest, and that these spates are becoming more prevalent and settling in to higher medians year in year out.” [22]

The Aboriginal youth suicide rate is higher than every country in the world, except for Greenland [30].

Suicide numbers are so high among young Aboriginal children that community leaders speak of “horrific narratives” [35] and a “normalisation” of suicide in that age group. More and more children, who are younger and younger, commit suicide.

“There is a fundamental failure at a community level where kids feel as if the only coping mechanism they have is to end their life,” finds Geraldton Mayor Ian Carpenter [27].

Photo of a beautiful 18-year-old Aboriginal woman. Philinka ended her life shortly after her 18th birthday. Young Aboriginal people who are smart and educated cannot afford the resilience they need to cope with, among other factors, enduring racism. A short time after graduating from a Melbourne boarding school Philinka killed herself. Photo used with kind permission by The Stringer [20]. Philinka’s mother, Lena Andrews, requested The Stringer publish her photo and name so her daughter’s passing brings on the journey to the changes that would have made a difference to Philinka and the many others who we should not have lost.

Australia’s Aboriginal suicide epidemic

Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley in Western Australia mourned 21 suicide deaths in 2006, compared to only three in the wider community [4], a rise by 100%. A “suicide epidemic” saw up to 20 young Aboriginal people took their lives within 12 months [5]. In Mowanjum, a 10-minute drive from mining hub Derby in the West Kimberley, there were 6 suicides in as many months [16]. In the 7 weeks to Christmas 2014 as many people killed themselves [10].

The Kimberley is the region of highest risk with suicides in the early 2010s in the region reaching 182 times the rate of the general population [25].

For Aboriginal children aged 14 years and less, suicide is the second leading cause of death – and they are 8 times more likely to die by suicide than their non-Aboriginal peers. For young Aboriginal people aged 15 to 35 years, suicide is the leading cause of death – 30% of deaths in this vast age group are reported as suicides – therefore nearly one in three deaths in this 20 year age group are suicides. [35]

Male suicide rates

In a 2009 report the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare compared suicide rates of 15 to 34-year-old males [28]:

Male suicides in Australia per 100,000
Age bracketAboriginalnon-AboriginalFactor
15 - 1944192.3
20 - 2475223.4
25 - 2991185.1
30 - 3460154.0

The table shows that the most vulnerable age-specific category are the 25 to 29-year-old Aboriginal males - 91 suicides per 100,000, nine times the overall national rate of 11 suicides per 100,000 [28].

Suicide has become the 2nd leading cause of death for Aboriginal men in the NT after cardiovascular disease [21]. Since the majority of Aboriginal suicides occur before 35 years of age, it has devastating psychological and social impacts on families.

Young Aboriginal men are the highest risk group, with young Aboriginal women catching up [12]. In the Northern Territory, Aboriginal youth suicide is 10 times higher than for non-Aboriginal youth [21].

States and territories

Western Australia leads the Aboriginal suicide rates, with 35.8 per 100,000 Aboriginal population. The Northern Territory has a similar suicide rate – 35.2 suicides per 100,000 people. These rates are three times the suicide rate of Aboriginal people in NSW, and twice the Queensland rate. [32]

In Queensland the suicide rate for the period 1990 to 1995 was 14.5 per 100,000, with the Aboriginal rate being 23.6 [3].

The number of “completed” Aboriginal suicides in 2011 exceeded the number of Australian Defence Force fatalities in Afghanistan [16].

There are probably more suicides

However, precise data on the number of suicides is difficult because some cases are not recorded as suicides (death occurred due to “external causes” or “accidental threats to breathing”) and delays in publishing figures [6].

Other factors include various classifications dependent on findings, reporting failures, jurisdictional differences in coronal processes and various uncertainties at familial, community and police levels in aggregating evidence as to the cause of death. [32]

For every suicide there are many more attempted suicides (some estimate up to 40 [33]), and hundreds of incidences of self-harm. The hospitalisation rate for intentional self-harm for non-Aboriginal Australians in 2014 stood at 142 per 100,000 people but for Aboriginal Australians the rate was 379 per 100,000, an increase from about 260 per 100,000 in 2004. Aboriginal women endured hospitalisation rates of 440 per 100,000 as opposed to 320 per 100,000 for their men. [32]

There is a terrible crisis here but nobody in authority except the police acts as if there is a crisis.—Gary Umbagai, chairman, Mowanjum Aboriginal Corporation [16]

Watch a documentary with personal stories from Aboriginal people, developed to be an early intervention tool to bring awareness to the growing suicide crisis.

Fact On the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin in the Northern Territory, steel spikes on power poles try to stop young people from hanging or electrocuting themselves [6]. From 2000 to 2005 the islands were known as the “suicide capital” of the world.

Why do Aboriginal people kill themselves?

Aboriginal suicides are similar but also different to non-Aboriginal suicides—people kill themselves at the end of a long period of suppressed rage (and not grief as commonly thought), but also because of trauma passed on from previous generations, and social marginalisation.

Why people suicide
 Aboriginal peopleNon-Aboriginal people
Main driverDisempowermentRisk factors
ExamplesMental illness, substance abuses, sexual abuse trauma, loss of land and culture, trans-generational trauma, grief and loss, racism, social exclusion.Psychiatric disorders (e.g. depression), stressful life events, substance abuse.
EnvironmentAcute poverty, denied rights, third-world conditions, missing access to the benefits of education and hard work.High levels of social disadvantage ranging from unemployment, to homelessness, incarceration and family problems.
Historical experiencesHigh influence, transgenerational trauma of massacres, war and genocide.Not very influential.

Rage is what overwhelms us in unbearable situations that we can neither fight nor flee. It is compounded if such situations repeat over a long period of time and the sufferer is powerless to avenge.

Rage or violence is the “prime mover” of suicide [17, 30], and a person who self-harms has endured physical violence, emotional or sexual abuse as a child or young adult [17]. All these factors are prevalent in Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal violence is not only a result of invasion but also of tribal history [30].

Aboriginal male suicides play an important part in explaining elevated suicide rates with many suicides concentrated in the 15 to 24 and 25 to 34 age brackets [3], often through hanging and while incarcerated.

Any event can trigger suicide: becoming unemployed or relationship stress, but also more banal triggers such as not handing over a mobile phone, being refused the car keys or being locked out [16].

  • Poverty. The major factor is the extreme poverty that many are marginalised and racialised within. [35] Research found that wherever there is extreme poverty in the Kimberley there are spates of suicide and self-harm incidents [25].

    The problem is not the individual, the problem is the circumstances of the individual.—Gerry Georgatos, Aboriginal journalist and researcher in suicide prevention and racism [35]

  • Racism. Ongoing racism is a big driver to suicide, even for Aboriginal youth who are doing well at school [20]. Walmajarri and Bunaba Kimberley mother, Lena Andrews, who lost her 18-year-old daughter to suicide, says: “Our people are smashed by it, hurt by it, tortured by it. This is a nation of two peoples. The First Peoples and the Australian peoples and unless First Peoples do as they’re told then they are punished by every means imaginable.” [20] Some cannot show the “inexhaustible resilience” required to deal with racism.
  • Abuse of alcohol and drugs. Many deaths are highly correlated to the abuse of alcohol and cannabis. Some propose a self-imposed ban on drugs to ‘suicide-proof’ communities. The time has come to take matters into their own hands and address “how we’ve neglected each other and made up excuses.” [9]
  • Poor living conditions. The appalling living conditions play their part: Foetal alcohol syndrome, poor levels of education, few jobs, ‘disgraceful’ public housing, overcrowded homes. Increasing government spending is a way to improve community life and avoid Aboriginal suicides. But it is seriously flawed, because “no organisation or individual monitors the performance of [government] agencies and no-one is held responsible for achieving improved outcomes for Aboriginal people” [4].
  • Bad health. Poor health.
  • Unbearable trauma. Many Aboriginal people have been traumatised when they were abused as children in Aboriginal missions, when their children were stolen or when they lose their homelands. The pain haunts them through their adult life and if they don’t receive help some just cannot cope any more.“There were all these funerals, these preventable deaths, that were happening and people were reaching a sense of hopelessness. They felt that they couldn’t address their issues, and that death was the only answer,” says Aboriginal woman June Oscar, chief executive of Fitzroy Crossing’s women’s centre [26].

    And he smiled. He was only 13, in enormous pain and he still managed a smile… Because the hidings and beatings they got never seemed to bother them, I used to wonder if their smiles were a separate physical entity and not connected to their emotions… I learned much later that those two boys had hung themselves.—Bill Simon, Aboriginal author [8]

  • ‘Normalisation’ of suicides. In Aboriginal life suicides are often part of community life which contributes to more suicides, just as the lack of opportunity to discuss grief or taboos surrounding suicide [1].
  • Lack of attention. As traditional funeral ceremonies can go on for days, children see that the most attention the deceased ever gets is during the funeral period. This attracts other young people to take their own lives [13].
  • No trust in, or access to, support services. Many young Aboriginal people have lost faith in services that could help them, such as counselling service Kids Helpline. They have doubts about the cultural competence and generally don’t believe services can help them [7]. Some have confidentiality concerns about their issues remaining private, while others fear that using a service would result in shame for themselves or their family, being judged, ridiculed or punished. But one of the biggest barriers in rural and remote areas remains access to such services in the first place.

    We need to ensure there are more Indigenous counsellors and that all counsellors have a better cultural awareness and understanding.—Wendy Protheroe, general manager, Kids Helpline [7]

  • Young people’s crisis. Young Aboriginal people often commit suicide as a result of sustained and ongoing drug abuse, problems with psychosis and a lack of self-esteem [12]. The only empowerment they have, it seems to them, is over their bodies and lives [36].
  • Colonisation effects. Colonisation and decolonisation has a significant impact on the rates of suicide among Aboriginal peoples [14], as have policies that dominate and change the Aboriginal way of life, such as under the Northern Territory intervention. Decolonisation causes governmental and mission-structured administrations to disappear overnight, leaving a vacuum that causes communities to “implode” and become disordered societies. [36]
  • Lack of self-esteem and identity. Self-esteem and identity “have taken hits over a long period of time that other Australian identities have not,” says journalist Gerry Georgatos. This distinguishes Aboriginal suicides from the rest of the Australian population. “For many Aboriginal peoples their identity is often a liability.” [23]
  • Feeling of inequality. When Aboriginal youth observe the tokenistic attention their parents get from non-Aboriginal bureaucrats, rather than appropriate respect, it drives home a message of inequality [23], and subsequently a deep feeling of anger and helplessness.
  • Contagion effect. Counsellors often refer to a contagion effect with suicide, with one death sparking another. In 2013-14 contagion was identified as a potential factor for seven of the 23 children who suicided in Queensland. [34]

Video

Following is a special ABC report about the youth suicide crisis levels among the Aboriginal population [34].

Suicide risk factors

The following ‘risk factors’ have been identified by community leaders, Elders and those working closely with Aboriginal communities in Australia [21].

  • Unresolved historical and inter-generational trauma (frontier massacres, dispossession from traditional lands, assimilation policy, Stolen Generations, racism, abuse)
  • Loss of cultural identity. Especially troubled youths with very fragile identities are prone to suicide.
  • Loss of spiritual connection to land
  • Cross-cultural confusion and lack of cultural resilience
  • Family disconnection and isolation of youth
  • Unemployment and lack of opportunities
  • Welfare dependency
  • Lack of self respect and self confidence, in particular amongst Aboriginal men
  • Disempowerment and loss of community control and traditional authority
  • Ongoing racism and institutional prejudice
  • Social breakdown

Effects of suicide

Heather Umbagai used to be a proud and perceptive woman. After she lost her son to suicide a big sadness and depression followed. Her health declined and renal failure set in [16].

For three years I was like a zombie – there was nobody to help me through the grief.—Aboriginal woman Heather Umbagai [16]

Suicide affects a community in many ways.

  • Mental health problems as a result of trauma and grief.
  • Copycats are triggered when witnessing suicide deaths.
  • Normalisation of suicide as children witness it at a young age and grow up learning that suicide is a valid option to “solve” even little problems.
  • Constant reminders of suicide as people in communities cut down trees in a desperate attempt to remove reminders of suicide, but at the same time creating an environment “littered with hacked tree trunks” [16].
  • Loss of leaders. Communities are losing the next generation of leaders to suicide.

Fact A young man in the Mowanjum Aboriginal community is called “the hangman” because of the scars around his neck from an attempted suicide [16].

Fact Many Aboriginal funeral insurance plans have clauses that limit the money paid out if a person commits suicide. In one case a plan worth $64,000 only paid $1,600. [37]

Overcoming the suicide crisis

Aboriginal people crying out for help are often met what they believe is “chronic official indifference” to their plight [16]. Despite the deaths, no effective suicide prevention strategy has been put in place.

Findings of two coronal investigations into suicide have been largely ignored [16]. In March 2013, Western Australia’s Premier Colin Barnett admitted that alleged billions of dollars spent on Aboriginal services and communities were not reaching the people [19].

Work done overseas in Canada has shown that there is a direct correlation between declining suicide rates and increases in resources allocated to allow for self-government and community-based services [15].

How to reduce Aboriginal suicides

There are some factors that can improve the well-being of Aboriginal people and reduce the risk of suicide [21]:

  • Strengthen culture and language. There are strong links between cultural strength, cultural identity and young Aboriginal people’s vulnerability to suicide and self-harm [24].
  • Connection to land. Living on or maintaining relationship with traditional lands. Taking young people onto country so they can reconnect with who they are as the basis for building self-belief, self-confidence and self-respect [24].
  • Join youth with Elders. Bridging the divide between youth and Elders and bringing back respect for Elders and culture.
  • Community empowerment. Empowering communities to handle affairs themselves is important for true self determination.
  • Recognise Aboriginal law. Recognise customary law and discipline.
  • ‘Two-way’ education. Schools need to also teach Aboriginal culture.
  • Activities for youth. Engaging activities for youth in communities help them socialise and discover alternatives. The award-winning Yirimam Project in the Kimberley, initiated by Aboriginal elders in 1997, takes young people into the bush to help them develop a sense of their cultural heritage, which builds self-esteem and identity [29] and prevents suicides.
  • Offer jobs. Culturally-appropriate job pathways and work opportunities give meaning to their lives.
  • Heal the trauma. Elder driven on-country healing programs for youth help them become stronger and think differently about themselves. Support Elders to maintain and pass on their cultural knowledge to young people.
  • A network of (Aboriginal) health experts. A network of psychiatrists, nurses and mental health workers - many of them Aboriginal - in Western Australia led to a 120% increase in Aboriginal people accessing mental health services, a 144% increase in face-to-face clinical consultations and a 44% increase in those accessing community health services. [27]

We want Government to support the Elders so we can teach culture to our young people – when they have culture first they have the very thing that will hold them strong through their lives no matter what they choose to do or where they choose to do it.—Eustice Tipiloura, Aboriginal Elder, Tiwi Islands [24]

The Story of Yudum Aaron Stuart has written The Story of Yudum, a book which illustrates
how Aboriginal people dealt with suicide before invasion.

The book is a good resource for anyone teaching about suicide prevention in Aboriginal communities, but also for those interested in the matter.

Homework: What can be done?

South Australian Elder Tauto Sansbury says [22]:

“And yet there is no mention of this continuing [Aboriginal suicide] problem in the media apart from the obituaries, and the Aboriginal community itself reacts to this situation passively as if it is acceptable and just the normal course of things. It is not an issue for discussion or action, at any level of government or in any human rights forum. I tell you it’s not the normal course of things.”

Questions

  • Why do you think are Aboriginal people so passive about the suicide epidemic amongst their people?
  • What should the Australian media change to help prevent future suicides?
  • Research what the Australian government has done to address Aboriginal suicide. What should it do next?

Tip Every second Tuesday in September is World Suicide Prevention Day.

Get help

Emergency
For immediate assistance when life may be in danger
Call 000
Suicide Callback Service - emergency

Lifeline
13 11 14 - 24/7 hotline
Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention services
www.lifeline.org.au

Suicide Call Back Service
1300 659 467 - 24/7 hotline
The Suicide Call Back Service provides free nationwide professional telephone and online counselling for anyone affected by suicide.
Suicide Callback Service

Beyond Blue
1300 22 4636 - 24/7 hotline
Depression. Anxiety. Talk it through with us, day or night
www.beyondblue.org.au

Mens Line
1300 78 99 78
MensLine Australia is a professional telephone and online support and information service for Australian men.
www.mensline.org.au

Kids Help Line
1800 55 1800
For ages 5 - 25 years
www.kidshelp.com.au

Footnotes

View article sources (38)

[1] 'Open to the light', Lindsay Murdoch, SMH 7/11/2009
[2] 'Police 'most racist' in WA', Koori Mail 414 p.11
[3] 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide', Prof Ernest Hunter, University of Queensland, 2001
[4] 'No quick fixes here', NIT 11/12/2008 p.26
[5] ''Hard yarns' - and hope for a better future' [Blank Page Summit], Koori Mail 508 p.37
[6] 'Girls at greater risk of suicide since intervention', SMH 11/2/2012
[7] 'Barriers for kids detailed', Koori Mail 507 p.31
[8] 'A long way from home', Sydney Morning Herald 23/5/2009
[9] 'A call to action', Koori Mail 458 p.6
[10] 'Families urged to look after each other as Kimberley region records seven suicides in seven weeks', ABC News 24/12/2014
[11] 'Suicide cash fast-tracked', Koori Mail 499 p.13
[12] 'NT suicide report findings backed', Koori Mail 523 p.8
[13] 'Coroner calls for help on suicides', Koori Mail 522 p.39
[14] 'Suicide: The tragic facts', Koori Mail 424 p.14
[15] 'Action plan for the Kimberley', Koori Mail 412 p.5
[16] 'The silent tragedy of profound loss', SMH 19/4/2012
[17] 'The rage epidemic', SMH 2/8/2008
[18] 'Can NT's first indigenous chief minister turn back the tide?', The Age, 15/3/2013
[19] 'Dumbartung convenes Suicide Crisis Summit', The Stringer, 26/4/2013, thestringer.com.au/dumbartung-convenes-suicide-crisis-summit/, retrieved 29/4/2013
[20] '“It is racism killing our people – suicides born of racism”', The Stringer 7/12/2014
[21] http://www.cultureislife.org, retrieved 15/9/2013
[22] '77 Aboriginal suicides in South Australia alone', The Stringer 4/10/2013
[23] 'In identity lay the answers – ATSI suicides', The Stringer 31/10/2013
[24] 'The Elders’ Report into Preventing Indigenous Self-harm & Youth Suicide', bepartofthehealing.org, April 2014, p.10
[25] 'Suicide trends in WA - an urgent call to action', Medicus, September 2014, p.30
[26] 'Fitzroy Crossing women tackle alcohol scourge', SMH 4/9/2014
[27] 'Geraldton community grieves as Aboriginal boy's suicide highlights prevention failures', The Australian 7/11/2014
[28] 'A review of suicide statistics in Australia', Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 28/7/2009, http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=6442468269, retrieved 19/11/2014
[29] 'A nation is shamed when a child sees suicide as the solution', National Unity Government, nationalunitygovernment.org/content/nation-shamed-when-child-sees-suicide-solution, retrieved 21/11/2014
[30] 'Aboriginal suicide', The Stringer 2/11/2014
[31] 'The smaller a community, the less likely suicide', The Stringer 25/11/2014
[32] 'The extensiveness of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander suicides – 1 in 20', The Stringer 25/2/2015
[33] 'Understanding Australia’s suicide crises', The Stringer 20/2/2015
[34] 'Youth suicide at crisis levels among Indigenous population, experts warn', ABC News 14/6/2015
[35] 'Catastrophic suicide crisis will escalate “unless"...', The Stringer 17/8/2015
[36] 'We need to move beyond the medical model to address Indigenous suicide', The Conversation, 10/8/2015
[37] 'Fighting suicide clauses in Aboriginal funeral insurance', Daily Examiner 28/12/2015
[38] 'Indigenous Suicide – White Comfort Politics and Survivorship', The Stringer 15/1/2016

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:

www.CreativeSpirits.info,
Aboriginal culture - People - Aboriginal suicide rates, retrieved 30 June 2016