Suicide rates in the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander age group of 15 to 35 years are at horrific rates. Suicide is the leading cause of death in this age group. Thirty per cent of deaths in this vast age group over the five year period 2008 to 2012 have been by suicide. This is nearly 1 in every 3 deaths by suicide.
This statistic and the narrative of human suffering and misery should have our governments and their many instruments focused on doing something about this. A critical response should be a national priority. This humanitarian crisis is the issue of our time.
It gets worse. There are under reporting issues and the suicide rates are not just more than likely higher, they are higher than the reported rates by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Australian Bureau of Statistics. However I will leave this for another article.
Children are taking their lives at ages so young and in numbers so high that it is an indictment of the Australian nation, its governments, for feet dragging. Government investments in one day workshops and in celebrity ambassadors will not make any lifesaving difference.
We were not put on this earth to bury our children but we do. We were not put on this earth to betray the other but we do. The moral abomination is that we know what is happening and yet the critical response of people strengthening people and the critical mass of improving the social health quotient is just not happening. But it must happen. In all my government engagements, on the boards I sit on, with the projects – national and community – I am involved in this is what I am urging, without compromising what needs to be said, without fail. I am praying that we get across the line to making the difference in the lifesaving ways that matter.
The children of the First Peoples of this continent, those children aged 14 years and less are eight times more likely to die by suicide than non-Aboriginal children. Unbelievably, suicide is the second leading cause of death for these children in this age group. When one in ten deaths over a five year period from 2008 to 2012 of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children has been by suicide then there is something dark, wrong, immoral and abominable in this nation. Australia is the world’s 12th largest economy, one of the world’s wealthiest nations per capita and according to the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index ranks second among nations, behind Norway, for the quality of its public health. But when we standalone Australia’s population of First Peoples, who comprise so little of the Australian total population, they have an equivalent rank of 132nd. The poorest among them have social health quotients equivalent to nations in sub-Saharan poverty. Of the world’s middle and high income nations with colonial oppressor histories Australia has the widest divide of all measurable indicators between the descendants of its First Peoples and the rest of the population. This is racialisation, and racialisation is a layer of racism, indeed it is racism.
One in ten Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children aged 14 years and less lose to suicide. This is eight times the rate of their non-Aboriginal counterparts. Eight and nine and ten and eleven year old children taking their lives is heart wrenching, but the moral abomination rests with the nation, with its consciousness, with its imprimatur – governments – for not prioritising humane responses.
The further west we journey across this continent the worse it gets for the descendants of the First Peoples, the more the hits, whether the extreme poverty, the homelessness, the arrest and jailing rates. It is third worst in South Australia, 2nd worst in the Northern Territory and worst in Western Australia.
The national suicide rate is around 10 per 100,000 population and when collectivised significantly obscures the narrative of human suffering, of misery, of premature and unnatural deaths that is the lot of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. The national suicide rate for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders is close to 21 per 100,000 population but we must disaggregate to jurisdiction and age groups. I remind that there are under-reporting issues and the real suicide rates are significantly worse, but the reported rates are loud and clear of the humanitarian crisis at hand that begs for a humane critical response.
Over the five year period, 2008 to 2012, NSW’s First Peoples endured a suicide rate of 11.5 per 100,000 compared with Western Australia’s 35 per 100,000. The Western Australian rate is a crisis. But the Kimberley region’s First Peoples endured a rate of over 70 suicides per 100,000. Similarly, the First Peoples of far north Queensland endured over 70 suicides per 100,000 over the same period. The Northern Territory’s First People aged 25 to 35 years also endured a suicide rate of 70 per 100,000. The most at-risk group are Aboriginal adult males aged 25 to 30 years who have a suicide rate of over 90 per 100,000.
From 2001 to 2010 the Australian Bureau of Statistic figures describe a suicide rate of one in 24 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths. It has got worse – in the 2008 to 2012 stretch the rate of suicide is now one in 20 deaths. Once again it is significantly higher than reported but ultimately if we couple suicides with other unnatural and premature deaths for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders we have a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportion.
It saddens me every time I write these articles, more than 200 articles in the last couple of years, because the 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. However, if we are to end this crisis, if we are to save lives, if we are to do the right, if we are to improve the lot of others then we have to do the truth. The truth is the only means to the ways forward.
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.
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. These tragic deaths are the tip of the iceberg. The levels of community distress, various trauma – usually multiple trauma – are at systematically dangerously destructive levels, taking down families and communities. The selling of resilience alone are not the solution, to tough it all out, we have to dish out the equality governments have been holding back.
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. 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 rate 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. According to the Productivity Commission in 2012/13 there were two and half thousand Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders admitted to hospital for self-harm.
The fact is, nationally, one in 20 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders are reported to die by suicide. My research estimates that it may be as high as one in 10. The fact is, nationally, one in three Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders in the age group 15 to 35 years are reported to die by suicide. This is this age group’s leading cause of death. The fact is that one in 10 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children aged 14 years and less are reported to lose their lives to suicide. This is this age group’s second leading cause of death.
Declaration – Gerry Georgatos is a researcher in suicide prevention and racism and is involved with various national and community projects in suicide prevention.
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.