A Crisis Situation
Almost non-existent 20 years ago, Indigenous youth suicide in northern Australian communities is now claimed to be the highest in the world.¹ In the Kimberley region alone, there is an attempted Indigenous suicide every week, resulting in a rate of suicide 100 times the national average.²
In Queensland, the situation is similarly dire. According to a 2013 government report:
- Indigenous children account for half of the child suicides between the ages 10-14 in Queensland
- The suicide rate among Indigenous children and teenagers in Queensland is 5 times that of their non-Indigenous peers (3)
Meanwhile, the Select Committee on Youth Suicides in the Northern Territory reports that:
- 75% of child suicides between 2007-2011 in the Northern Territory were Indigenous children (4)
- Indigenous teenagers made up 95% of suicide deaths of 10-17 year olds in the Northern Territory between 2006-2009 (5)
- Between 2001-2006, the suicide rate for Indigenous children in the Northern Territory was 5 times the national rate. During the same period, there were no cases of suicide among non-Indigenous children of the same age range in the Northern Territory (6)
Put in a national context, Indigenous suicide has increased from 5% of total Australian suicide in 1991, to 50% in 2010. The most drastic increase occurred among young people 10-24 years old, where Indigenous youth suicide rose from 10% in 1991 to 80% in 2010 (7).
Why is this happenning?
Many factors contribute to these tragic statistics, including:
- the brutal history of colonisation (find out more here)
- intergenerational trauma left by Stolen Generations policy
- ongoing racism
- the everyday realities in Indigenous communities, such as unemployment, poverty, overcrowding, social marginalisation, and higher access to alcohol and drugs (read more about Indigenous disadvantage) (8)
According to the Elders’ Report into Preventing Indigenous Self-Harm and Youth Suicide (2014), a loss of cultural identity and cross-cultural confusion is a major factor underlying Indigenous youth suicide. Bernard Tipiloura, an elder in the Tiwi islands, NT, explains that "suicide occurs when young people find themselves in no-man's land” (9).
Download the Elder's Report into Preventing Indigenous Self-Harm and Youth Suicide (2.7 MB) HERE
What is being done?
Successive Governments have made concerted efforts to reduce the rate of Indigenous youth suicide through prevention programs and improving Indigenous mental health services. Despite these attempts, statistics show that little, if any, progress has been made.
In April 2014, following two years of consultation, the Culture Is Life campaign released a solution-based Report that holds the experience of Indigenous elders from Cape York to the Kimberley.
“We had organisations in town to help us, but they don’t know who’s hurting. That’s because they’re sitting up there in their office. How would they know?”
Des Bowen, Hopevale, QLD (10)
“The Government haven’t been listening to the people on the ground, they do come and do consultations but they go away and the bureaucracy gets a hold of that document and when it comes back it’s probably unrecognisable from the interview that was done on the ground. ...So we end up again with ideas, with suicide prevention that come from Canberra that bears no resemblance to what is needed in the community and on the ground. And that is a big frustration that there is funding but the Government says this is how we are going to spend it.”
Dean Gooda, Fitzroy Crossing, WA (11)
“There are a lot of people running around trying to do good, but it doesn’t create inter-generational change. We want to up-skill our own people. I haven’t seen any successful engagement in youth intervention happen as a result of outsider programs. Yet the system we operate within relies on bringing in outside people all the time.”
Wayne Bergmann, Kimberley, WA (12)
What should be done?
According to the Elders’ Report, the solution lies in the strengthening of cultural identity. “Balanda (white people) can’t give us what we need. We already have it”, explain elders Noeletta McKenzie and Marita Wilton from Maningrida community in the Northern Territory. “Going out bush is important. It’s our place to practice culture and reinforce our identity. It reminds us who we are. This keeps us healthy and strong… But in this changing world, we need funding to be able to access our cultural ways. We are being pulled away and this is causing our community great pain. It is killing our young people” (13).
The need for culturally appropriate, community led programs is reinforced time and again throughout the Report, by elders from different communities across the continent.
“Culture has become life-giving medicine for our people, closing the wounds of the past and standing us strong to face the future.”
Pat Dudgeon, Bardi, WA (14)
“Balanda (white people) can give us medicine from the hospital, but the Yolgnu way of healing is by having family, the whole family and community there for support. …Sometimes we need to go out of the community and heal ourselves. We need to go somewhere where we can sit down and learn who we are again.”
Djalinda Ulamari, Yirrkala, NT (15)
“The only way to find out what’s going on with at-risk young people is to take them out fishing or hunting and to sit down with them on country. That’s when you will find out who’s hurting. Sitting in your office is really no help.”
Des Bowen, Hopevale, QLD (16)
“We want the Government to understand that not supporting homelands, not supporting cultural education, and not supporting cultural activities is actually a matter of life and death for us. It’s not just a nice little thing to support; it’s actually our people’s inner soul.”
Bernard Tipiloura, Melville Island (Tiwi), NT (17)
The Report offers the following recommendations for effectively addressing the escalating tragedy of Indigenous youth suicide:
“In respect to the actions and next steps that should be taken to address youth self-harm and suicide in Indigenous communities this report calls for Governments, professionals in the health and justice systems and others to acknowledge and accept:
- The links between cultural strength, cultural identity and young Indigenous people’s vulnerability to suicide and self-harm;
- That preventing suicide and self-harm involves supporting Elders to maintain and pass on their cultural knowledge to young people - and that this involves taking young people onto country so they can reconnect with who they are as the basis for building self-belief, self-confidence and self-respect;
- That the way forward is to adopt a ‘community centred’ approach to healing that is led by local Elders and which involves building community and cultural strength as a foundation for helping Indigenous youth be stronger, more resilient and more positive about their future” (18).
If you or anyone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, contact Lifeline:
Ph: 13 11 14
Crisis Support Online Chat
Want to know more?
Watch the Sharing Our Story series to learn more about the shared history that has led to our current situation.
The complete Sharing Our Story series is available here.