Whereas it was reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that for the period 2000 to 2010 one in 24 of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths were by suicide, in the period since this rate has increased to one in 20. The suicide rate is even higher than is reported. But this already high frequency of reported suicide as a cause of death has a traumatic effect on peoples who already endure a disproportionately overwhelming burden of bereavement stress because of the high rate of premature and unnatural deaths. In some communities, life expectancy is thirty years lower than the national average and one in three of their people are dead by 45 years of age. Child mortality rates are double and triple the national average.
One in 20 of all deaths by suicide is a phenomenally high rate and bespeaks of community distress, identity crises and a contagion of unhappiness. The one in 20 suicide death rate is a disproportionately high rate but it is also clearly lower than what it really is. Because of various classifications dependent on findings, because of reporting failures, because of jurisdictional differences in coronial processes and of the various uncertainties at familial, community and police levels in aggregating evidence as to the cause of death, I estimate that the suicide rate among Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples is more likely double – but previously I have estimated one in 12.
This is catastrophic.
Whereas in the first ten years of this millennia there was an average of 100 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides per year, this has increased to an average 130 suicides. In 2012, there were 117 Aboriginal suicides, which represented 5 per cent of all Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides in that year – and therefore translates to one in 20 deaths by suicide. The period 2008 to 2012, where there were about 600 suicides is tragically an increase on the period 2000 to 2007, where there were about 700 suicides. The suicide rate has increased from marginally less than 100 suicides per year on average to 120 suicides per year.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Western Australia leads the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide rates, with 35.8 per 100,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander 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 and/or Torres Strait Islander people in NSW, and twice the Queensland rate.
Of the 117 reported Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides in 2012, 34 occurred in Western Australia, 29 in Queensland, 27 in the Northern Territory and 20 in NSW. Queensland and NSW have more than double the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander populations of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Both WA and the NT have Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander populations around 80,000 each while Qld and NSW each exceed 160,000 in their population counts.
The Queensland Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicide rate peaked around the end of the century, then dropped and then reached near its peak levels in 2001 and 2002 and has decreased slightly since. The Western Australian Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicide rate was significantly high in 1998, higher than most of the jurisdictional and regional rates around the nation at the time and of many currently. But the higher than usual rate increased every year to 2006, by which time it had doubled. Subsequent the spike in 2006, the rate began to decrease but never falling below the 1998 rate. In recent years the rate has increased again, with 2011 reaching close to the 2006 rate. Therefore, Western Australia is the worst of the suicide crisis among the descendants of the First Peoples, although the Northern Territory tragically competes with Western Australia. But why is it that these two jurisdictions with half the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander populations of Queensland and NSW are faring so badly?
The Northern Territory has generally maintained a horrific suicide rate among Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples at 35 per 100,000 since 2007. But it was worse for the Territory at the beginning of this new millennium, with a peak of 50 per 100,000 in 2002, decreasing to less than half that by 2006. In that year the Federal Government’s Emergency Response (‘The Intervention’) was launched. In subsequent years the suicide rate increased to thereabouts 35 per 100,000 where it has remained since. In 2002, 33 lives were reported lost to suicide in the Territory, decreasing to 16 lives reported lost to suicide in 2006, but increasing to 29 in 2007. In both 2011 and 2012, 27 lives were reported lost to suicide in the Territory.
The majority of suicides among Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples are before 35 years of age, with just about all of them before 45 years of age. The highest risk group is the 25 to 30 year old males but high risk groups are found in the 15 to 20 year old age group and within the 20 to 35 years age groups. For the non-Aboriginal Australian population highest risk groups are well above 50 years of age, with the highest risk group above 80 years of age.
For every suicide there are many more attempted suicides, and hundreds of incidences of self-harm. To some extent the estimations of the number of incidences of intentional self-harm are measured by the number of hospitalisations. The hospitalisation rate for intentional self-harm for non-Aboriginal Australians stands currently at 142 per 100,000 people but for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Australians the rate is 379 per 100,000. The hospitalisation for intentional self-harm for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people has increased from about 260 per 100,000 in 2004 to 379 today. Whereas Aboriginal males are nearly three quarters of all Aboriginal suicides, intentional self-harm hospitalisation rates are higher for Aboriginal women. Aboriginal women endure hospitalisation rates of 440 per 100,000 as opposed to 320 per 100,000 for their men.
Australia cannot continue turning a blind eye and deaf ear to these catastrophic suicide and self-harm rates. We were not put on this earth to bury our children – but we do. We were not put on this earth to betray one another – but we do. I will continue with my mantra – that there are no greater legacies any Government can own than to help first its most vulnerable, to improve lives to the point that lives are saved. Governments will fail in many of their prescribed and intended objectives but the one objective they must not fail at is in the saving of lives. The saving of lives must be at the top of the national agenda. When it is, lives shall be saved and we shall all be the better for it.
Lifeline’s 24-hour hotline, 13 11 14, provides counselling and advice to anyone in crisis.
More reading and links:
Kirstie Parker, Mick Gooda say enough of fine words – close the gap a big fat lie