The Suicide Crisis in Australia’s Indigenous Community

The first was on January 3rd. She was fifteen, and died in her hometown in Queensland. Less than a week later, three more girls had passed away, each in a different corner of the giant landmass. January 11th saw a fifth death recorded, again a schoolgirl, this time only 12-years-old. She was followed quickly by three others. No more than a fortnight into the year, 2019 had witnessed the deaths of at least eight Australian children. Each of them was of Indigenous heritage, and all had committed suicide.

It’s a spiralling problem that’s been brewing for decades. Indigenous children make up less than 5% of Australia’s youth population, but account for a quarter of all child suicides. In some states, that number is as high as 60%. And while coverage of the issue often links it to remote communities – especially in the sparsely populated northwestern region of Kimberley – self inflicted juvenile deaths are increasing nationwide.

In response to the particularly troubling spate of suicides, Australia’s Federal Government earlier this year injected funds into community prevention schemes. The financial boost was well received, noted Adele Cox, who leads the Indigenous charity Thirrili, but “no amount of money […] will take away the pain that the families of these young people will be experiencing,” she said.

Experts agree that funding alone will not solve this incredibly complex phenomenon. Such is the size, diversity and convoluted history of Australia, it is impossible to point to one single factor. The past decade has seen numerous major inquiries hand down hundreds of recommendations – the most recent in February of this year – but the trend of Indigenous child suicides continues to accelerate unhindered.

A lack of equality is often identified as a key driver in the crisis. The Government’s ‘Closing the Gap’ initiative has for ten years aimed to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – the two groups which constitute Australia’s Indigenous community – but critics say progress is slow. The current situation is “unforgivable” a very candid Prime Minister Scott Morrison said as the report’s 2019 edition was released, adding that he didn’t know when Indigenous kids would have equal health, education and employment outcomes as their non-Indigenous counterparts.

The disparity in access to appropriate mental health services has been singled out as a critical factor in the suicide crisis. This imbalance is particularly evident in remote communities – which account for 20% of the Indigenous population – where psychological treatment is both difficult to obtain and culturally inappropriate, an Australian Senate inquiry recently concluded. So lacking in cultural competency are rural mental health services that at times they “traumatise and re-traumatise the very people for whom they are supposed to provide therapeutic treatment,” the report said.

But mental illness is not always the cause of Indigenous suicide, the inquiry found. Housing, for instance, was identified as a decisive factor in the downward spiral. Waiting lists for public housing often reach eight years in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, said Cheryle Kaesler, who runs an emotional wellbeing unit. Psychological unrest in family units can be difficult to escape for young people, who everyday are subjected to a cycle of stress, frustration and hopelessness.

These psychological burdens are often passed from one generation to the next. Poverty is endemic among Indigenous people, with 50% of the community in Australia’s bottom quartile of prosperity. From this disadvantage flows alcoholism, domestic violence and sexual abuse. Difficult to escape in a tight knit society, these social affiliations are passed from parent to child. The “crushing effects” of this so-called ‘intergenerational trauma’ are shaping the suicide epidemic, said Western Australia’s State Coroner Ros Fogliani after the most recent cluster of deaths.

This anguish has plagued Indigenous families for centuries, extending back to the colonial era. The native people of Australia – like their counterparts elsewhere – were subjected to brutal displacement, rape and murder at the hands of white imperialists. This disempowerment has become institutionalized within Indigenous communities, experts warn – and continues to manifest itself in the inequality and racism experienced by modern day members of Indigenous society.

And so it is this, the most primordial factor in the suicide epidemic, that must be tackled first. That’s according to Professor Pat Dudgeon, Project Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP), whose team is leading the fight against Indigenous suicides. In practice, that means “dedicated and community-specific and led responses,” the group said. To this end, it is important that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike acknowledge and understand the devastating and enduring impact of the colonial legacy. With greater insight comes greater empowerment and a sense of self-determination.

But such is the precipitous spiral of the crisis, short-term more immediate remedies are required too. ‘Postvention’ – intervening in a child’s life after a community death – is key to this, experts say, particularly in the case of suicide clusters. Psychological therapy and material support should be made available to any vulnerable youngsters touched by death as a matter of urgency.

In the medium-term, progress can be made too. The culture of sensational suicide coverage – especially on social media – must be tackled to prevent children building an association with self-harm. And lessons from past Indigenous suicide reduction programs must be learnt. This means establishing peer-to-peer mentoring networks, engaging children in sport and the arts, and connecting youngsters with community elders and their culture.

While these changes need to be enacted with the support of Australia’s federal authorities, to do so with non-Indigenous ideals would be futile. Historical grievances must be redressed, racial inequalities confronted and community-led support championed – all the while imbuing the cultural wisdom of the Indigenous people. Whether or not the Australian government – and those like it around the post-colonial world – can commit itself to a ‘follow rather than lead’ agenda remains to be seen. If it can’t, the seemingly incessant cycle of death and despair looks set to plague yet another generation.