Cbpatsisp

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are identified as a priority population for suicide prevention in Australia.

It is important to acknowledge the continuing strength and resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the impact of colonisation on contemporary rates of suicide. Prior to colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples lived healthy and happy lives, with low rates of suicide.

Understanding Social and Emotional Wellbeing

Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples prefer the term social and emotional wellbeing as it fits well with a holistic view of health. In broad terms, social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) is the foundation for physical and mental health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is a holistic concept which takes a collectivist perspective of self as intrinsically embedded within family, community and extended kinship networks. It also highlights the importance of connections to land, culture, spirituality and ancestry, in ensuring wellbeing.

What does the evidence tell us about suicide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?

Suicide has emerged in the past half century as a major cause of premature mortality and is a contributor to the overall health and life expectancy gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) provide yearly updates on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide deaths. Further suicide data can also be found on the ATSISPEP website, and from the ATSISPEP report.

Data and statistics

Data available from AIHW and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) indicates that in 2022*:

  • Suicide accounted for 5% of all deaths in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples compared to 2% for non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • Suicide is the leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples aged 15 to 44 years
  • The median age of death by suicide was 33.4 years for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, compared to 46.9 years for non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • The suicide rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was more than double that of non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the 5-year period from 2018-2022.

Suicide in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth*:

  • Almost 30% of deaths in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth aged 5 to 17 years was caused by suicide
  • Over one quarter (26%) of all suicide deaths in youth ages 5 to 17 years were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • The suicide rate was more than three times higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people compared to non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the 5-year period from 2018-2022.

*These data are reported by the ABS for the states/territories of NSW, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Northern Territory only. This is due to the quality of data collection about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status.

Factors that may increase risk of suicide

Evidence shows that high suicide rates experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are due to multiple, complex and interrelated factors that heighten the risk for suicidal behaviours and self-harm. These can include the cumulative impact of:

  • The continuing impacts of colonisation
  • Transgenerational trauma, grief and loss associated with the ongoing impact of dislocation and the effects of forced removal of children and mistreatment
  • Pervasive racism and discrimination at individual, institutional and system levels
  • High rates of incarceration
  • Violence and inter-personal conflict
  • An access gap to mental health services
  • Mental health and suicide support services which are not culturally safe
  • Social determinants of health (e.g. inadequate housing, food insecurities, lack of employment, poverty).

Factors that protect against suicide risk

There are unique aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture that can have a significant positive influence on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' health, and that enables Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to maintain strong social and emotional wellbeing. Connection to land, spirituality and ancestry, kinship networks, and cultural continuity are commonly identified as important health protecting factors.

The causes of suicide are complex and multifaceted. It is important to acknowledge that an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person may never experience suicidal behaviours or thoughts. The presence of protective factors can reduce the suicide risk.

What does this mean for policy and practice?

The social determinants of health (for example, inadequate housing, food insecurities, low employment, poverty) contribute to high rates of suicide among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Suicide prevention programs and services should therefore support a multi-level approach to address dispossession, racism and the broader determinants of health, and the array of inequalities that impact on the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Related resources

Indigenous initiatives

Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Australia

Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Australia is a national independent and inclusive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and emotional wellbeing, mental health and suicide prevention leadership body, encompassing cultural and clinical elements to benefit all communities.

Indigenous lived experience network

Former Minister for Indigenous Australians, Hon Ken Wyatt announced $1 million towards an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Lived Experience Centre within Black Dog Institute. This is to provide a national representative voice for Indigenous people with lived experience of suicide.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicide prevention centres

National Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention (CBATSISP)
National Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention (CBATSISP)
National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO)
National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO)
The Healing Foundation
The Healing Foundation

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