Results of a new audit tell a tale that is, sadly, all-too-familiar across the Top End of Australia. Rates of Indigenous suicide in the Kimberley region over the last ten years were seven times the national average.
While the national rate is about 12 people dying by suicide for every 100,000 people, rates in the Kimberley region were 74 people per 100,000. We also found the rate of suicidality (people talking about or threatening to suicide) among Indigenous populations in this region was about ten times that of the general population in Australia.
This ever-rising tide helps confirm that two worlds, with widely differing experiences of life (and death), are living in this country.
Effects of colonisation
This is not “news”. The scenario of such widely differing rates of suicide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples living in colonised countries has been well documented around the globe including in North America, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.
Indigenous suicide may be considered one of the “downstream” effects of the processes involved in colonisation, followed by further cultural disruption in the wake of efforts to decolonise.
In many ways it is difficult to disentangle Indigenous suicide causally from so many other related calamities – increased exposure to domestic violence, childhood trauma and sexual abuse, and the ravages of alcohol, and now, ice abuse.
In marked contrast, prior to colonisation and all that came with it, suicide appears to have been unknown in traditional Indigenous society.
Indigenous suicide has been characterised as one potential outcome of an intergenerational transmission of mass trauma – including massacres, being pushed off traditional lands, policy resulting in the loss of parent/child attachments (Stolen Generations), social inequality and institutionalised racism.
The custodial system was one setting in which Indigenous suicide emerged – a population in which Indigenous Australians continue to be vastly overrepresented. In the spotlight of extensive media coverage of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, awareness of Indigenous suicide was migrating into the community in the 1990s, and in the ensuing decades the rates have soared.
Our data confirms the most at risk group are Indigenous youth, and as if this was not worrying enough, now children are also at risk.
We know world-wide those transitioning into adulthood appear at increased risk. In our study we found 68% of those who suicided were under 30 years old, and 27% were under 20. And although originally predominately affecting males, female Indigenous youth suicide and suicidality are now increasing.
Is there a solution?
Elevated Indigenous suicide rates may be seen as perhaps the most poignant marker of the additional psychological and physical burden many in the contemporary Australian Indigenous population, especially in a rural and remote setting such as the Kimberley, face.
But tragic though these rates are, they are just the tip of the iceberg.
As we widen out our field of view, we encounter suicidality behaviours (such as self harm) at rates of ten times those experienced by the non-Indigenous population, Indigenous incarceration rates at 2,253 people in 100,000 compared to 146 in 100,000 in the non-Indigenous population, severe housing problems including overcrowding, more infectious disease, more chronic disease, and a lifespan that is ten years lower than the non-Indigenous population.
The situation our findings attest to is not unique to the Kimberley, or for that matter Australia.
As we look for solutions it is clear well-intentioned organisations and individuals throughout the colonised world have been searching for a good answer for a long time.
Finding a way to fix the problems that lead to Indigenous suicide has proved to be a complicated issue without a simple, incisive, short-term solution.
We have to find a new way, led by true cultural respect and partnership, evidence, and long-term commitments to empower and instil hope into each Indigenous generation as it emerges, if we are to gradually turn the tide.
Authors: Murray Chapman, Associate Professor, School of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, University of Western Australia