Australia’s Aboriginal peoples are suiciding at the world’s highest rates. Standalone, racially Aboriginal peoples endure horrific statistics unparalleled by the rest of Australia and more voices are rising to highlight and address what they see as criminal neglect by Australian governments. In collating data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there have been 996 reported Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides between 2001 to 2010. A horrific statistic where one in 24 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people die by suicide.
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was launched because of 99 custodial deaths of Aboriginal people, but Aboriginal suicides are ten times that number over the same length of time.
Recently, South Australia’s Narungga Elder Tauto Sansbury of the Garridja organisation spoke out about the spate of suicides in and around Adelaide and the deaf ears among governments who do not anywhere near enough about these spates. Similarly, the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Arts Council coordinator Wes Morris spoke out about the horror suicide rates among Aboriginal youth in the Kimberley. He said that governments need to fund Aboriginal controlled and serviced organisations to engage and empower the youth.
Raelene Ward is an Aboriginal Nurse Fellow at the University of South Queensland (USQ) completing her PhD in ‘What suicide means to Aboriginal communities across South West Queensland.’ Ms Ward commenced her career at Goondiwindi Hospital and between 2007 to 2009 coordinated a suicide prevention project at USQ before undertaking a fulltime research position.
The Cunumulla-born Ms Ward said, “Suicide is an immense problem for our people and their communities and the risk of suicide and self-harm among Indigenous communities is complicated and compounded by complex trans-generational transmissions of violence, trauma, grief, de-colonisation, racism and loss.”
“The effects of these are known to greatly contribute to sociocultural and economic problems and conditions which in turn place Indigenous individuals at greater risk of suicide and self-harm.”
Ms Ward referred to the inability for many Aboriginal peoples at-risk to access services, for which in communities such as Yarrabah she has led the way in addressing, but which are an issue especially in the remote.
“The services were available but access was difficult. Transport was a huge issue along with financially being able to access to services. Racism and discrimination is experienced regularly by the community when accessing services at all levels within the community.”
“There are not a lot of Indigenous people in positions like mine but the more we see like another black face it encourages our people.”
The suicide crisis has dejected Aboriginal leaders Australia-wide, it has been ongoing for at least a decade at levels never-before-known. In Western Australia, in May, Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation directors Robert and Selina Eggington convened a Suicide Crisis Forum, which was attended by more than 400 people and many government agencies and officials. Following the forum a delegation was invited to meet with the State Premier Colin Barnett, and they did. Premier Barnett acknowledged the horrific statistics.
Only three years ago, the Eggingtons lost their 27-year old son, Bob, to suicide, and have dedicated their lives to helping hundreds of other families who grieve. Mr Eggington described the spates of suicides as “alarming and include children as young as 11.” He said Aboriginal communities are “having their hearts torn apart.”
The Summit called upon governments to urgently act, and to fund Aboriginal controlled programs that work.
Noongar Elder Margaret Culbong said the suicide epidemic is “frightening and is breaking down communities and families.”
Ms Culbong echoed last week’s comments by Mr Wes Morris that the mainstream mental health sector is not necessarily the solution. “There is definitely something not working in that area,” said Ms Culbong.
Like Mr Morris she said that “culturally engaging services, Aboriginal led, that go to the heart of our identity need to be funded.”
Noongar Elder Pat Kopusar said that if governments do not adequately fund culturally appropriate services “then what hope do our young have?”
Mr Eggington said that there are “children as young as 11, 12 and 13 who are taking their lives.”
“These tragedies are indictments against a country that is incredibly affluent, that is wealthy.”
He said government driven Aboriginal mental health services need to be overhauled. “We want to be able to heal our own people and to set up initiatives that can help deter this epidemic.”
“Aboriginal people just are not accessing the mainstream services so we want to hopefully reach a point where we can provide those services instead.”
In May, Noognar Bev Port-Louis lost her 27 year old nephew in the WA Wheatbelt town of Moora. Ms Port-Louis said there had been a spate of suicides. “We all ache, the whole town aches.” In 1997, Ms Port-Louis lost her husband to suicide.
She said that three other young men, aged 27, 28 and 29 had taken their lives earlier this year within weeks of each other in Moora.
“There are some Moora women who are trying to organise counselling, to get people from Northam but they cannot do it all on their own,” said Ms Port-Louis.
With adult males, the suicide rate of Aboriginal peoples is highest within the 25 to 29 years age group with 91 deaths per 100,000 as compared to 22 deaths per 100,000 for their non-Aboriginal counterparts. For Aboriginal peoples the ABS standardised rate of suicide is at two and half times higher for males than the rest of the population and three and half times higher for females than the rest of the population. In some jurisdictions it has reached as high as five and seven times, and with children five to eight times, and in some remote communities spates of suicide have reached 100 times the national suicide average.
In the Kimberley, Mowanjum community leader, council chairperson and mineworker, Gary Umbagai remembers the spates of youth suicides that chewed his community apart. “There is something terribly wrong in our community, but what we can we do without help, nobody comes to help? We have the highest youth suicide rate in Australia, possibly in the world here in Mowanjum.”
He said for every suicide there are a dozen others attempting suicide or self-harming. “The trauma in Mowanjum is everywhere.” He said that community members try to look out for those who have attempted suicide but “we cannot watch them all the time.” In a 12 month period there were 25 suicides and scores of attempts and self-harms in and around Mowanjum. But Mowanjum has a population of only 350, and the whole of the Kimberley has an Aboriginal population of 14,000.
“Everyone cries, we all grieve, and the children grow up thinking this is normal and that problems can be solved in this way. We don’t’ have grief counsellors, we don’t see the funding coming to Mowanjum.”
Suicide in Australia takes three times more males than females, but disproportionately there has been a rise in Aboriginal female suicide. According to ABS data, child suicide (five to 15 year of age) is a rare event in Australia but it is increasingly common with Aboriginal children.
For every suicide there are hundreds of attempted suicides – with the ABS reporting collated hospital data that validate the extent of suicides moving beyond ideation. Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males, 15 years to 19 years are four and half times more likely to die by suicide than are their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait females, 15 years to 19 years, are six times more likely to die by suicide than are other young females.
Mr Eggington said that less than 10 per cent of the Closing the Gap funding to Aboriginal health is directed to grassroots programs that he and all the others have said has a better chance of working than do limited mainstream services.