Children are taking their lives – as young as nine, ten, eleven and twelve years of age. We were not put on this earth to bury our children, our youth, but we do. In general, suicide takes more lives than all forms of violence combined. It shocks me that the majority of Australians – and in particular the educated and chattering classes – are not aware of the extensiveness of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth suicide crisis.
In order to wash into the national consciousness the extensiveness, and the underlying issues, of Aboriginal youth suicide, some of us have been cultivating the statistical narratives into the media, into the public domain. Comparisons have been made against the available global data. We have disaggregated the narrative to high-risk regions, to unmask truths, to unveil the story from the collectivised data and medians which do not tell of the catastrophic tragedies for instance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Kimberely, far north Queensland and throughout the Northern Territory.
It is my belief that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of the Kimberley, of the Northern Territory and of far north Queensland are dying by suicide at the world’s highest rate. It is without question that their suicide rates are the highest end of the global spectrum.
It is not a competition of which peoples in our world have the world’s highest suicide rates, highest self-harm rates, highest depression rates, highest jail rates, the worst poverty indicators, highest homelessness rates. If these indicators are at the high end of the global spectrum then we have a crisis.
If Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have suicide rates higher than every overall national trend in our world then this is catastrophic. Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and youth have suicide rates higher than every overall national suicide trend in our world. Over the years, I have compared the age categorical suicide rates with the available data from around the world. There are limitations on the standards and quality of the comparative data but on the available data, I have found that it appears that Australia’s Aboriginal children and youth are suiciding at the world’s highest rates.
One should also take into account the context of the host nation. Australia is a high income nation – one of the world’s largest economies, with the world’s highest median wages. Therefore it is even more so disturbing that Aboriginal children and youth are suiciding at alarming rates.
If you are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child aged 14 years and less you are eight times more likely than a non-Aboriginal child to suicide. This is an abomination, moral and political. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in this age group – one suicide in 10 deaths.
If you are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander aged 15 to 35 years, nearly one in three deaths are registered as a suicide. Suicide is the leading cause of death for this age group.
During the last several years I have been disaggregating the suicides and was shocked at the fact that the narrative is much worse. Importantly, I have been on a bent to raise awareness, knock up the cultural shift so we can successfully urge the ways forward and succeed in the saving of lives.
There is no greater legacy than in improving the lot of others to the point of saving lives.
Yesterday, I was asked by someone about whether in fact the northern regions of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have suicide rates that are the world’s highest. I never felt more disappointed by a question, of whether they are suiciding at the world’s highest rate or thereabouts. I could not believe the question and I do forgive it being asked – that is my way. Yes, more than likely the suicides are at the world’s highest rate but does it matter if instead they are the second or third highest in the world from a racialised lens? What matters is that our children are suiciding at abominable rates. The questions should not be about exactly how many but about why.
I believe our children are suiciding at the world’s highest rate but my focus is on why and what should we be doing. I have travelled to communities over many years and I know what is occurring. I also understand the ways forward and this is where my energy is focused – working with the affected, for they will lead the ways forward. I have looked into the eyes of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts and grandparents who should not have lost their young ones. I never have any words for their loss. I will cry with them. I will hold them. I wake up at nights and stare at the wall. I spend my days on this earth doing the best – and more – that I have in me to assist families and communities with the ways forward.
It is an abomination – moral and otherwise – that this affluent nation has dismissed this horrific plight – the suicide crisis – among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. As much as some hate this, and see this as stirring, I understand the doing next-to-nothing bit by our governments for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides as racism. If the staggering suicide rates that are awash throughout Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples, particularly among their Kimberley, Northern Territory and far north Queensland populations were instead among non-Aboriginal Australian populations we would all know about it and our governments would prioritise the crises. Therefore the issue is racialised, and for me it is racism – loud and clear. Racism has veils and layers.
I do not care that there is not enough available comparative data for a conclusive statement – for me, living in this nation, one of the world’s wealthiest, there are no justifiable excuses for the racialised disparities in the various rates between the populations of the First Peoples of this continent and the rest of the Australian population. For me, because of this nation’s affluence, because of the oppressor and oppressed historical dichotomy, because of the inexcusable divide there is none worse suicide crisis in our world.
We know that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides when disaggregated regionally, for instance to the Kimberley, to regions of the Northern Territory, to far north Queensland and when viewed from a racialised lens are definitely among the world’s highest rates, tragically. I have seen no long term comparative data age categorical from anywhere in the world worse than the Kimberley, Northern Territory and far north Queensland narratives.
They are at the highest end of the global spectrum, probably highest, but then again other comparators should be taken into account – demographical life expectancy, economic indicators, whether the host nation or region has a low, middle or high income median, and other economic, social, civil and historical factors, including racism and discrimination. For instance, of all high income nations with relative recent colonial oppressor histories Australia has among the world’s widest divides between its First Peoples and the rest of the population of its measurable economic and social indicators. Australia’s jailing rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are at the highest end of the global spectrum, and when disaggregated to the Northern Territory and Western Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations are among the world’s highest jailing rates, and at times highest, and this is also true of disaggregated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island suicide rates. But in the end, it is not a competition of which peoples in our world have the highest rates in the tragedy of suicide – all lives matter. Suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is a humanitarian crisis and it must be highlighted in order that this pressing issue should be responded to as a national priority.
The focus must be on the underlying issues that culminate in the psychological distresses, disturbing self-harming and in the suicide rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples.
Various media has made comparisons from some of the suicide rates data with available global rates.
– The Australian newspaper, Nov 8, 2014 – A nation shamed when a child sees suicide as the solution
According to the World Health Organisation (2014) whose most recent data sets are to 2012, Guyana has the world’s highest suicide rate – 44 suicides per 100,000 population.
Reference: WHO report 2014
According to this report Australia’s suicide rate ranks 64th of the 171 national suicide rates provided. A simple comparison of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide rate would rank it equivalent to 12th in the world against the global national trends. However if we disaggregate regionally, for instance to the Kimberley, and standalone to its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the suicide rate is at 70 per 100,000, tragically higher than all the world’s national trends. Far north Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples tragically also have a suicide rate of 70 per 100,000.
The significant statistic that should galvanise the nation and government to a comprehensive national response is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait and Islander peoples aged 15 to 35 years, nearly one in three deaths is by suicide – 29% of this age group’s deaths are suicide; their leading cause of death.
Reference: AIHW report
Despite the staggeringly alarming suicide rates, they are higher than reported. There is underreporting of suicides however this too is a global problem. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics from 2001 to 2010 there were 996 registered suicides of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This equated to 1 in 24 of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths by suicide. But this has now increased to 1 suicide in 19 deaths. However I estimate because of underreporting issues that the actual suicide rate is more likely 1 in 12 to 1 in 16. All these statistical narratives are staggeringly tragic. It is not a how worse or how bad it will get competition but in fact the majority of Australia is sitting idly by as this humanitarian crisis continues.
Someone emailed me the following:
My responses are in bold.
“The suicide rate among young Indigenous Australians is high by global standards, and, in some pockets of Australia, well above the national average.”
My response: Yes.
“However, the lack of consistency in quality of data and standards for reporting across the world makes it difficult to compare rates worldwide.”
My response: There is no need for in depth comparisons with the rest of the world. Simple comparisons allow for the extensiveness of for instance the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides to be relatively understood. It is correct that data and standards globally vary despite the WHO reports.
“The Northern Territory has the highest suicide rate of any state or territory in Australia. Data reported by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) in 2014 showed that in 2010- 11, the suicide rate in the Northern Territory was 18.1 per 100,000. NSW had the lowest suicide rate at 7.8 per 100,000, as shown in the chart below.”
My response: Those rates are not standalone to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations. The Kimberley’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population has a suicide rate of 70 per 100,000. Far north Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population has a suicide rate of 70 per 100,000. It is a must-do to disaggregate.
“At 29.6%, the Northern Territory also has the highest proportion of Indigenous population. The average for Australia is 3%.”
“The AIHW reports that:
“In 2008–2012, the suicide rate for Indigenous Australians was almost twice the rate for non-Indigenous Australians (based on age-standardised rates). For 15–19 year olds, the rate was 5 times as high as the non-Indigenous rate (34 and 7 per 100,000 population).”
“The high proportion of Indigenous peoples in NT may be a contributing factor for that territory having the highest rate of suicide in Australia.”
My response: Yes.
“Suicide rates vary by age.”
“Between 2001 and 2010, the highest rate of any age group in Australia (NT, NSW, QLD, SA and WA) was reported for Indigenous males aged 25 – 29 years.”
My response: Yes, for that period, but has varied since.
“Among this group, the reported suicide rate was 90.8 per 100,000 population. Indigenous males aged 30 – 34 years had the next highest rate (75 per 100,000) followed by the 20 – 24 age group (74.7 per 100,000).”
My response: Yes, all correct for that period as reported by the ABS.
“Among non-Indigenous Australians, males aged 35 – 39 years were reported to have the highest rate of suicide in 2010 with a rate of 25.4 per 100,000, followed by the 40 – 44 year age group with a rate of 25.2 per 100,000 (ABS, 2012).”
“The Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project reports that: The Kimberley is the region of highest risk with suicides reaching more than 70 per 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.”
My response: Yes, that is correct. The same goes for far north Queensland.
“Without age specific suicide rates for the world for the same time period, it is not possible to make a definitive assessment on how Indigenous youth suicide rates in the north of Australia compare with rates from other parts of the world.”
My response: Definitive assessments may be impossible but various non-definitive assessments can be made and extrapolated. We can definitively claim where rates relatively rest on the global spectrum. As stated, it is not a competition nor is it necessary to expend time and resources on definitive comparisons when we must expend time and resources on other pressing needs. The definitive assessments that matter are for instance that tragically nearly 1 in 3 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths of those aged 15 to 35 year olds are suicide.
“Based on WHO data, the suicide rate for the world is estimated to be 11.6 per 100,000 population.”
“South East Asia reported the highest rate of suicide in 2008 (15.6 per 100,000 for males and females), followed by Europe (14.2 per 100,000). The Western Pacific (that includes Australia), has the next highest, with a rate of 12.6 per 100,000.”
“Looking at age-specific rates globally in 2008, males aged 80+ in the Western Pacific had the highest rates (93.5 per 100,000). The rates for young people in Western Pacific are quite low, according to a 2012 report of WHO data, with rates ranging from 8.5 per 100,000 in the males 15 – 29 age group to 10.4 in the males aged 30-22 age group.”
“Lithuania was reported to have the highest suicide rate in the world, with a rate of 34.1 per 100,000 in 2009, followed by South Korea (31.0 per 100,000 in 2009, also included in the Western Pacific region statistics).”
“Data published by the WHO in 2012 reported Guyana in South America to have the highest suicide rate for males with a rate of 70.8 per 100,000.”
“The rate for females was highest in South Korea with a rate of 35.1 per 100,000. The rate reported for Australia is 16.1 per 100,000 for males and 5.2 per 100,000 for females.”
“The lack of consistency in quality of data and standards for reporting across the world makes it difficult to compare rates worldwide. Comparison is made more difficult when some rates are presented as age adjusted rates, while others are not.”
My response: There is no need for definitive comparisons other than for simple comparisons.
“The small numbers in remote locations further compound the issue by making rates unstable.”
My response: I disagree with this statement. The Kimberley has a population of 44,000 and 46 per cent of the population is comprised of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. When we determine rates we outlay them over 5 and 10 year periods and not over a one year period which could be an outlier.
“The suicide rate of 90.8 per 100,000 reported for Indigenous males aged 25 – 29 years is certainly higher than any other rate reported for any other country in global reports.”
My response: Yes, and the current rate yet to be released but when published will report even higher.
“However, some smaller studies have found even higher rates in parts of Asia. A surveyconducted in rural Bangladesh reported a rate of 128 per 100,000 for males and females.”
My response: Am aware of these surveys and we can also produce small surveys but as stated it is not a competition and we must move away from this theme. For robust medians and data they must be over reasonably long periods of time. I note in my summary that the Northern Territory Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander male youth, 15 to 24 years of age had a suicide rate of 121.6 per 100,000.
“From India, a study conducted over two years in a rural population in Southern India reported a rate of 120.3 per 100,000 for the period 2006 and 2007.”
My response: I know, but we are sticking to the WHO reports for purposes of baseline comparisons.
“One study on deaths occurring between 1994 and 2002 among those aged 55 years and older (mean age 6.7 years) in an area in South India with a population of over 100,000 people, reported an annual suicide rate of 189 per 100,000.”
My response: I don’t really want to get into the fact of life expectancies and that the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are of people less than 35 years of age. The contexts, demographical issues, life expectancies, and mix of historical and contemporary issues are myriad.
“While these studies varied in methods, the findings indicate the possibility that there are other populations in the world who may have higher rates than those reported for Indigenous youth in Australia.”
“Based on data freely available in the public domain, there is insufficient information to support the statement that Indigenous youth in the top half of Australia have the highest rate of suicide in the world.”
My response: (For ethical reasons have withheld the first part of this response.) However, I most certainly believe and estimate that the Kimberley Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth most certainly have among the world’s highest suicide rate if not the highest, and as stated it is not a competition, instead it is a humanitarian crisis. I could explore global data further to make an interim assessment but does it really matter? Our focus is to work on the ways forward.
“To know for sure, we’d need to compare age standardised data by sex and age-group from other countries with high suicide rates. However, it is safe to say that in some parts of Australia, the suicide rate among young Indigenous people is at the very high end of the global spectrum.”
My response: True.
That was the end of our engagement, for now. Someone captured the above with the comment, “it’s hair-splitting” and despite the “hair-splitting they still have not proved that the youth suicide rates are not in fact the highest in the world.”
From 2001 to 2012, 35.1% of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides were of youth. The Northern Territory Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander male youth, 15 to 24 years of age, had a suicide rate of 121.6 per 100,000. Western Australia Aboriginal 15 to 24 years aged youth followed with 90.3.
Once again, it is not a competition, it is not about who has the world’s highest rates; the suite of comparators are complex and need to be contextualised. However, when disaggregated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – and to the high risk regions, Australia has been hiding a humanitarian crisis.
If we are going to lock horns let it not be about the meaningless and vainglorious, let it for goodness sake be about the issues and the ways forwards – I do expect better of all of us. We cannot play with people’s lives. We must not.
Declaration of impartiality conflict: The author of this article, Gerry Georgatos, is a suicide prevention researcher with various national and other projects and is also a community consultant with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP).
Lifeline’s 24-hour hotline, 13 11 14
Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636
Other articles and media on the suicide crisis and suicide prevention by Gerry Georgatos:
CAAMA Radio – Gerry Georgatos Speaks out on Aboriginal Suicide.