Intervention report shows suicides doubled in four years

Barbara Shaw

Allyson Horn and Lucy McNally ABC Indigenous October 14, 2011

A new report says the number of attempted suicides in communities affected by the federal intervention in the Northern Territory has doubled in four years.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has released the latest Closing the Gap monitoring report on outcomes of the intervention.

It shows the number of attempted suicides and self-harm cases in remote Territory communities has risen from 109 in 2007-2008, to 229 in 2010-2011.

The report also found the number of convictions for child sexual assault remained steady between 2007 and now, at around 11 per year.

It says child neglect is a bigger problem than abuse in remote communities.

There were 272 reports of child neglect to welfare agencies in 2010-2011, which was 100 more than four years ago.

The report shows the number of reported sexual assaults have dropped from 48 in the year the intervention started to 17 for the 12 months to June this year.

Ms Macklin is yet to comment on the report.

Central Australian Indigenous leader and anti-intervention activist Barb Shaw says people in remote communities are not being taught how to properly deal with suicide threats.

Ms Shaw says support needs to be given to community elders, to help them try to prevent suicides.

"I think it is very important in getting back to the old people, to the grass roots, and start talking to them on how they want their future generations to survive," she said.

"I know that, back in the past, especially with the old people, they were very strong on keeping the families together."

Ms Shaw says there is little mental health support available to locals.

"There is no service in the town (Alice Springs) that can actually start working on prevention of suicide," she said.

The Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory says its unacceptable that so many people have attempted suicide in remote indigenous communities.

AMSANT executive officer John Patterson says it is a tragic situation that can only be resolved if the government makes a ten-year funding commitment to improve mental health services.

"Suicide is a significant concern in the Northern Territory, particularly among Aboriginal people," he said.

"Data ... between 2001 and 2011 demonstrates that 75 per cent of suicides in Central Australia involved Aboriginal people."

Aboriginal Suicide is Different

Karina Act Now 21st December 2010

Three to four decades ago suicide among Indigenous people was practically unheard of. Today the picture is much much bleaker. Suicide rates among Indigenous people is estimated to be three to four times the that of non Indigenous Australians. In some remote communities this number may be significantly higher (Institute of Health and Welfare 2007).

Suicide occurs more in the earlier adult years for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than for other Australians. So why are young Indigenous people taking their own lives and are the current services delivering enough to prevent young Indigenous people from resorting to suicide? Are we as communities talking about this issue enough?

The current situation

Indigenous Australians are a very young population with a median age of 20.5 years compared with 36.1 years for other Australians. In recent years, the death rate from suicide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males was highest in the 15 to 34 year age group. For females, the rates have generally been highest in the 15 to 24 years age group.

Indigenous male suicide per 100,000:

  • Age 0-24: 30 per 100,000
  • Age 25-34: 105 per 100,000

Indigenous female suicide per 100,000:

  • Age 0-24: 10 per 100,000
  • Age 25-34: 20 per 100,000

My experience with suicide

As a young Indigenous woman I have certainly encountered suicide throughout my family, amongst my friends and throughout my community to a high degree.

I experienced suicide in my family for the first time at age 11 when my big cousin decided to take his own life leaving a big hole in my family’s heart and like never before mine too. I was unaware at the time but this was the beginning of a long list of suicides among people that where close to me, people related to me and people who I looked up to.

Most recently a childhood friend of mine chose to take her life leaving behind her two young children and a large family. As a result I found myself reflecting on the past and trying to come to an understanding as to why so many young Indigenous people around me had lost so much hope and resorted to taking their own lives. I don’t have the answers; however I have become aware of the distinction between Indigenous and non Indigenous suicide.

How is Aboriginal suicide different?

Little research has actually been conducted into Indigenous understandings and definitions of suicide and self-harm behavior, however reputable organisation such as Suicide Prevention Australia (SPA) insist that Aboriginal suicide often stems from risk factors such as:

  • Alienation and anger
  • Dispossession
  • Grief and lack of purpose
  • Separation of children from parents
  • Social disadvantage
  • Poverty
  • Lack of meaningful support networks
  • The impact of flawed government policies
  • Illiteracy
  • Lack of publicly recognised role models and mentors
  • Sexual assault
  • Lack of meaningful employment
  • Widespread use of drugs and heavy drinking

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Association Suicide Prevention (IASP) states that ‘suicide is influenced by cultural, religious, legal, historical, philosophical and traditional factors and that these contexts need to be taken into account in considering suicide prevention’. Suicide causes an impact on the wellbeing of the community as a whole and often causes a domino effect.

There is no doubt that suicide among Indigenous people is unique. There needs to be a way for our young people to feel like there is a reason behind this and to have hope for the future.

Current services

There is currently a variety of services that focus on combating Indigenous youth suicide. Living Is For Everyone (LIFE) dedicates much of its research and services to beating this epidemic. LIFE matters for Koori youth is one project currently aimed at improving community awareness and attitudes to suicide prevention in 14 to 25-year-old Koori people via the SPLASH program (Suicide-Prevention-Listening-Asking-Safety-Help). They approach the issue holistically focusing on issues specific to Indigenous people.

Suicide Prevention Australia (SPA) is a national lobbying and advocacy body. Sarah Maxwell of Suicide Prevention Australia states:

“There are certainly gaps in the system, for suicide prevention and mental health generally, but specific gaps occur in Indigenous communities and services. SPA is not currently involved in any Indigenous specific campaigns; however we do make a point of considering the implications of all policy and service planning for Indigenous communities”.

Other services include:

  • National Suicide Prevention Strategy projects
  • Mental Health First Aid Training and Research Program
  • StandBy Response Service
  • Community Activity Programs through Education– Indigenous Police Citizen Youth Club (Cape PCYC)
  • LifeForce suicide prevention program
  • We Know Our Strengths

Indigenous social and emotional wellbeing organisations

  • Mibbinbah: Indigenous Men, Health and Indigenous Men's Spaces
  • Indigenous Psychological Services
  • National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO)
  • National Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Workers Association Inc (NCATSISWA)
  • Office for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health (OATSIH)
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  • While these services certainly have positive outcomes it is important that the issue of youth suicide is continued to be spoken about and the stigma wiped away.

It is easy for young Indigenous people to become disengaged from a society where they are substantially marginalised and disadvantaged, however there are measures that can be taken to prevent this from occurring at the level it currently is.

I propose that a separate aboriginal suicidology (the science dedicated to the understanding of suicide) be established, with a greater focus on historical, political and social factors.

As a young indigenous woman I see a greater future for my people. One filled with hope and personal achievement not associated by the constant grief and heartache that is caused by suicide.