Tom Calma and Pat Dudgeon

Tom Calma and Pat Dudgeon

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership in Mental Health has welcomed funding by the Australian Government for a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project. The Project, to be undertaken by the School of Indigenous Studies in partnership with the Telethon Kids Institute at the University of Western Australia, will formally evaluate a range of existing suicide prevention programs and services to enable the development of a much-needed evidence base for ‘what works’ in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention.

Professor Pat Dudgeon, Chair of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership in Mental Health (NATSILMH) and Director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (Project), said it was evident there was a growing gap between the mental health of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

“Indeed, the data suggests an entrenched, perhaps worsening, mental health crisis,” Professor Dudgeon said. “This is illustrated by the ‘gaps’ in reported rates of psychological distress, hospitalisation for mental health conditions and – critically – suicide.”

Professor Dudgeon said as well as the evaluation, the Project would also undertake a systematic review of existing national and international research, including previous research consultations undertaken with communities, and conduct further consultations with communities where existing programs have been found to work, or a high level of risk has been identified.

“While there are many worthwhile community-initiated and other suicide prevention programs operating in Indigenous communities, less than a handful have been formally evaluated,” said Professor Dudgeon.

“This lack of an evidence-base has hindered the establishment of suicide prevention and early intervention best practice programs and services and also dissuaded governments from investing in suicide prevention among Indigenous people.

“This has been an unacceptable ‘block’ to progress and I commend the Australian Government, and Minister Scullion in particular, for their commitment to achieving a breakthrough.”

One of the aims of the Project is to provide the Australian Government with recommendations to inform the implementation of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy (Strategy). Dr Tom Calma AO, Chair of the body that developed the Strategy and also a member of NATSILMH, said such evidence is needed to ensure that $17.8 million pledged to be invested in the Strategy contributes to real reductions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide.

“This Project will provide hope that we as a nation will be able to draw a line under this tragic situation, and that our young people in particular can look forward to long and fulfilling lives as proud and strong members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this country,” said Dr Calma.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has reported there were 996 Aboriginal and Torres Strait deaths by suicide over 2001-10, or about 100 per year for that decade. This was approximately twice the rate of suicide for non-Aboriginal people. Suicide rates for Aboriginal females aged 15–19 years were 5.9 times higher than those for non-Aboriginal females in this age group, while for males the corresponding rate ratio was 4.4. Recent data suggests that the situation may be getting worse. The ABS recently reported 117 deaths by suicide in 2012, as determined by coronial inquest.

Independent researchers suggest that as many as 130 deaths by suicide a year are now taking place as some deaths (for example, drug overdoses) will not be identified as suicide by coroners. Dr Calma and Professor Dudgeon called on Australian governments to take a multi-partisan approach to tackling suicide in our nation.