Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People

In recent years, suicide within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities has become an increasing problem. Statistics show that most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who die by suicide are under 29 (Baume B, Cantor C, McTaggert P (1998) Suicides in Queensland:A Comprehensive Study. Aust Inst for Suicide Research and Prevention, Brisbane) and, in particular, suicidal rates for young Aboriginal males has increased significantly. This has occurred alongside high rates of injury, self injury and death from unnatural causes (Pirkis J, Burgess P. (1998) Suicide and Recency of contact with Health care: a systematic review. British J Psych. 173:462 – 474).

The historical, social and economic issues associated with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait
Islander background has been implicated as major factors in suicide in these
communities. Frustration, alienation and anger, hopelessness, grief and lack of purpose has been linked to heavy drinking, widespread use of drugs, and other substances, mental health problems, imprisonment and the upsurge of suicide rates. (Hunter E. (1997) An Overview of Indigenous Suicide. Australasian Psychiatry, 5(5):231) The copycat phenomenon is frequently seen in this context.

In more isolated communities, there may be issues related to availability, culture and experience of support workers. Health workers are often young, and overall experience of the health team may be less than within the wider community. Also, issues of who can appropriately address ‘women’s business’ and ‘men’s business’ may be important factors not always considered. If health workers are also related to the people at risk, a wider support team needs to be established.

Research is lacking in what can make a difference in Indigenous communities. Research needs to be by local people addressing their own needs in their own communities. There are two examples that shed some light.

The first is the community of Yarrabah in far north Queensland. Yarrabah was founded as a mission in 1892. The Yarrabah community which evolved from then was not a natural grouping, but an artificial community created, as many Aboriginal people were removed from traditional lands and relocated to Yarrabah “…enemies often found themselves as neighbours. The high population density within the main settlement increased social tensions and led to a rapid rise in drinking, violence and public disturbance.” There was a destabilization of the family as an agent of social control.(Craig 1979, cited in Hunter et al. 1999; 57 cited in Australian Institute of Family Studies Youth Suicide Prevention Bulletin No. 4, Penny Mitchell) With very high rates of suicide through the early 1990s, the people of Yarrabah themselves explored a range of approaches. This involved setting up a community based suicide response capacity, creating resources locally, employing ‘life promotion officers’, developing men’s health groups and other relevant activities. The suicides in this community reduced substantially.

The second striking example is from the experience in the Indigenous communities in British Columbia in Canada. A very clear association has been demonstrated between suicide rates and the number of community services under local community control.(Chandler M.J., Lalonde C.E., Sokol B., Hallett D. (2003). Personal persistence, identity development, and suicide: A study of Native and non-Native North American adolescents. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Serial No. 273, Vol. 68, No. 2.)