NACCHO Aboriginal Health NEWS : Lost in the great desert , preventing Aboriginal suicide

Punmu sports carnival, Punmu, Western Desert - Kiwirrkurra Lions play the Warralong Bombers. Picture - Lee Griffith / The West Australian 23 June 2010

Answers that have the potential to halt WA’s Aboriginal “suicide crisis” in less than a decade have already been pinpointed, says leading suicide prevention researcher Gerry Georgatos.

Now, greater commitment and adequate funding were needed to begin the move forward.

But he warned if the current “piecemeal approaches” to suicide prevention were not replaced with the well-researched evidence-based strategies now on offer, then the crisis was likely to “increase and worsen”.

December 09, 2015

Mr Georgatos, a member of the research team at the University of WA-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project, said WA was in the grip of a “catastrophic humanitarian crisis”, with one in four of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides occurring in the State and the Kimberley’s indigenous suicide rate among the highest in the world. Deaths had occurred in Aboriginal children aged under 12.

“But what we have long known are the ways forward,” he said.

Gains would be made, he said, when Aboriginal-specific mental health plans and social and emotional wellbeing strategies were introduced and poverty and economic inequalities were addressed.

The project had also determined that racism was still at unacceptable levels in Australia and must be tackled. Internalising the effects of racism had been shown to cause “toxic levels” of stress, distress, depression and feelings of powerlessness that were associated with suicidal thoughts and behaviour and could negate the protective impact of good parenting and a supportive family. The Telethon Kids Institute’s WA Aboriginal Child Health Survey found those who had experienced racism had more than double the risk of having seriously thought about ending their own life.

Increased effort was needed to reduce everyday stress and critical stress events faced by Aboriginal families. Analysis of available data revealed those children and young people presenting with suicidal behaviour were frequently living in overcrowded and substandard housing, exposed to domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse, not attending school and likely to have chronic health concerns.

Mr Georgatos said first up there was a pressing need for an Australia-wide critical response service for indigenous suicide.

The project is funded by the Australian Government to evaluate the effectiveness of existing suicide prevention services and programs in combating suicide and suicide ideation in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

“We are working at a pace to make a real difference but in the end it will come down to governments recognising that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide is a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. If you are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander aged 15 to 35, nearly one in three deaths will be a suicide,” Mr Georgatos said. “We have the capacity to radically reduce the suicide crisis within less than a decade but we need the political will to underwrite this.

“The problem is that despite the evidence-based research into strategies that will work, governments fail to implement these strategies. We have proposed to the Federal Government, through the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, a critical response model that will save lives.”

Source: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project, University of WA. Go to If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, phone Lifeline WA on 13 11 14.

Preventing Aboriginal suicide

Suicide is one of the most common causes of death among Aboriginal people, accounting for one in 19 deaths. Those between the ages of 15-34 are at highest risk, with suicide accounting for nearly one in three deaths. Poverty and historical factors contribute to the suicide rate being, on average, twice as high as that for the non-indigenous population.

Needed to strengthen communities:

  • focusing on youth — providing activities, drop-in centres, camps, connecting youth to elders, providing health promotion and education sessions, parenting programs and restoring sporting competitions.
  • strengthening the sense of community — through shared activities and community events such as fun days, competitions and projects.
  • supporting self-determination.
  • supporting men’s and women’s groups.
  • providing access to employment, education, housing and transport.
  • addressing family violence and substance abuse.

What Works? UWA indigenous studies professor Pat Dudgeon says evidence, expert opinion and experience suggests that:

  • For those at immediate risk of suicide — Culturally safe treatment and support should be delivered through Aboriginal community-controlled health services where possible.
  • For at-risk groups, particularly young people and adults — Developmental factors that can predispose to suicide must be addressed at an early age. Increased efforts are needed to promote positive cultural identity. The WA Aboriginal Child Health Survey 2004 reported clinically significant emotional or behavioural difficulties were lowest in areas of extreme isolation, where adherence to traditional culture and ways of life was strongest.
  • For whole communities — Healing, empowerment and leadership programs and strategies that build social and emotional wellbeing and resilience.

Aboriginal communities agree on the problem and how to fix it

When eight Aboriginal communities across Australia — differing in size, location, history and levels of remoteness — were asked what challenges had a negative impact on social and emotional wellbeing, their answers were similar. It was exactly the same when they were asked what needed to be done to make things better. Their responses were collected by the Aboriginal-led National Empowerment Project, which conducted interviews in Narrogin, Perth, Northam and Toodyay.

What WA leaders say should be done

A four-point action plan to turn around high suicide rates was put together in June last year when 50 Aboriginal and non-indigenous leaders and experts met at a “Call to Action” round-table meeting.

  1. Prioritise Aboriginal “ways of working” (community-led and culturally appropriate).
  2. Establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth forum.
  3. Strengthen the evidence base for Aboriginal suicide prevention.
  4. Develop an Aboriginal cultural framework for suicide prevention services and programs.

Programs showing the way forward — On-Country programs, mentoring, identity building, language reclamation, programs focused on social and emotional wellbeing and empowerment and stand-by services to back up at-risk individuals and grieving families.

Examples in WA:

ALIVE AND KICKING GOALS! — Aims to prevent youth suicide through the use of football and peer education. Volunteer youth leaders, who are well-respected sportsmen, educate others about suicide prevention and demonstrate that seeking help is not a sign of weakness.

YIRIMAN PROJECT — An intergenerational, “on-Country” cultural healing and education program, developed by elders from four Kimberley language groups: Nyikina, Mangala, Karajarri and Walmajarri.



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